PLANCHER-LES-MINES, France (AP) — After just 10 stages, the two pre-race favorites have crashed out of the Tour de France. And Vincenzo Nibali is wasting little time in showing that he’s now the man to beat.
On Monday, the Italian narrowly dodged a spill by Alberto Contador that left the two-time Tour champion with a fractured shin. Nibali went on to barrel past a panting breakaway rider to win a fog-and-rain coated, up-and-down Stage 10 and recover the yellow jersey that he had lost only a day earlier.
It didn’t come easy.
“This was the hardest stage I’ve ever done in a Grand Tour, with seven climbs and so many crashes,” said Nibali.
Contador’s mishap has given this 101st edition of cycling’s greatest event a dubious distinction of being the first in recent memory to force out its two top stars to crash injuries. Five stages earlier, reigning champ Chris Froome quit with a broken wrist and hand sustained in a string of spills.
As the race enters its first rest day on Tuesday, Nibali — who has already won the Spanish Vuelta and Italian Giro — looks on his way to winning his first Tour with just under two weeks to go.
When Stage 10 began, many race pundits — and Nibali himself — expected Contador to try to erase his 2 1/2 minute deficit to the Italian by attacking on the ride to the finish atop La Planche des Belles Filles ski resort. As FDJ.FR team manager Marc Madiot put it: “This is the day for Contador to put Nibali into trouble.”
Instead, it was Contador having the problems.
The 31-year-old Spaniard took a hard tumble in a high-speed downhill run in the Vosges mountains. After riding about 18 kilometers (12 miles) in pain, the Tinkoff-Saxo Bank team leader finally gave up. He put his foot down, got off his bike, wiped his eyes and got into a team car. An X-ray later showed a shin fracture.
Nibali said he had been ready for a “duel”.
“I already had a good lead and I was ready to fight in a big duel with Alberto,” he said. “Crashes are part of the sport. I’ve crashed myself many times in the past too. It’s a pity that the Tour has lost two major protagonists.”
A string of crash injuries has meant that the Tour will have a first-time winner this year. Andy Schleck, the 2010 Tour winner, dropped out before Stage 4 following a crash injury a day earlier, though the Luxembourg rider said before the race that he wasn’t in good enough shape to contend this year.
Nibali said he was riding next to Contador, and almost went down himself.
“I feared that the Tour might be over for me too,” the Italian said. “There were a lot of risks today, and I’m really sorry for Alberto Contador. I was right behind him and luckily I was able to avoid him. It was on a descent. The road wasn’t in great condition.
“I don’t know what happened, but it was just incredible,” said Nibali. “He fell right in front of me and was rolling on the floor. We must have been going about 60 kilometers per hour.”
The race resumes Wednesday with a slightly hilly 187.5-kilometer (116.3-mile) route from Besancon to Oyonnax in eastern France. Stage 11 will feature four moderate climbs toward the end.
The three-week race ends on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 27.