How did Vincenzo Nibali win the 2014 Tour de France?
Last year, I looked at where Chris Froome gained time on his rivals in a bid to explain how he came to win the Tour. That’s not really so necessary this year because the result was so much more clear-cut. Vincenzo Nibali gained time on pretty much everyone, pretty much every chance he got.
These were among the most important days.
Traditionally, Grand Tour winners don’t show up for a week. They dither around in the bunch and talk about ‘staying out of trouble’ in press conferences. Then, when they finally hit the mountains or the first time trial, they pedal like mad. Vincenzo Nibali took a different approach, heading out to win the second stage and take the yellow jersey. It didn’t tell us too much about his form, but it told us everything about his intent.
There are some who’ll tell you that the cobbles make for a lottery when used in a Grand Tour. If that’s the case, Nibali must have bought great armfuls of tickets. It surely can’t be any coincidence that the eventual overall winner was the main beneficiary on a day of chaos. Where other major contenders looked upon this stage with trepidation and cycled fearfully and conservatively, Nibali saw only an opportunity. Look for excuses and you’ll find them. Nibali was searching for something else. He rode like a champion and after putting minutes – MINUTES! – into all his major rivals, he was well on the way to becoming precisely that.
The first uphill finish showed us who was climbing well and if the gaps were small, Nibali still put time into Thibaut Pinot, Jean-Christophe Péraud and Alejandro Valverde, foreshadowing what was to come. The last 50 metres will be spoken about a lot, however, with Alberto Contador taking all of three seconds off the eventual winner. Was that meaningful, or was it, as Nibali said at the time, merely a matter of poor gear selection and a climb that didn’t suit him? Next year’s race might give us some sort of an answer.
The first proper mountain stage and perhaps it was for the best that it didn’t come sooner because the finish became the template for all that followed: Nibali attacked a few kilometres before the end and no-one could follow. If it looked devastating, it’s worth noting that he only really held the gap after creating it, rather than riding further and further away.
It was somewhat overlooked thanks to Richie Porte’s risk-free descent down the general classification, but after the cobbled stage, this was the day when Jean-Christophe Péraud lost most time. He finished two minutes down on Nibali, who took his third stage win.
Another summit finish, another Nibali stage win – his fourth. This was the point at which it became obvious that even the other riders in the top ten weren’t pretending there was any chance the Italian might not win. He attacked (following Chris Horner, who had pissed him off by winning last year’s Vuelta) and everyone just flat-out ignored him. By this point he was almost literally riding a different race.
All the intrigue lay in the battle for second, but Nibali again gained time on everyone in the time trial. There were even suggestions he might challenge Tony Martin for the stage win. He didn’t, obviously. It’s Tony Martin.
It’s impossible to avoid highlighting the absence of Froome and Contador, but it’s also worth noting that Nibali was ahead of both of them when they abandoned. While those pair were yearning for terrain they knew, looking nervous and uncomfortable, Nibali busied himself defying rivals, weather and conventional wisdom to open up a lead.