After doing all he could for 10 days to avoid a crash, Alberto Contador finally fell victim to slick conditions and bad luck.
Less than a week after tentativeness on the famously treacherous cobblestones of eastern France had cost the Spaniard more than two and a half minutes to chief rival Vincenzo Nibali, Contador fell heavily on the descent of the Petit Ballon and sustained a broken tibia, forcing him to abandon the race he last won in 2009 soon afterward.
The abandonment of Contador might have left Nibali without a peer for the second half of the Tour. A day after he calculatingly ceded the overall lead to France’s Tony Gallopin, Nibali attacked on the slopes of La Planche des Belles Filles and won the race’s first mountaintop finish, reclaiming the yellow jersey and solidifying his status as the odds-on favorite to claim victory in Paris.
Initially, it was unclear exactly what the immediate repercussions of Contador’s exit might be. The peloton, controlled by Nibali’s Astana team, initially sat up and waited for Contador, who began the stage ninth overall and 4:08 behind newly-minted race leader Tony Gallopin. And though the beleaguered Spaniard, with three teammates around him, began to close in on the race leaders, the pain in his injured and bleeding right knee soon prevented him from carrying on any longer.
The pack’s sporting gesture allowed the day’s nine-man breakaway, which included points leader Peter Sagan and best young rider Michal Kwiatkowski, to stretch its lead to over four minutes. That made Kwiatkowski, the best-placed of the bunch, the virtual leader on the road.
But Astana’s hard-charging chase (aided for a time by Team Sky, riding in support of Richie Porte) gradually nailed back the excess time. The breakaway then shattered when last year’s third-place finisher, Joaquim Rodriguez, lifted the pace on the day’s pentultimate climb, the Col des Chevrère. Further down the road, Gallopin, his face locked in a perpetual grimace, fell off the back of the pack and eventually lost nearly five minutes to Nibali. "It was my worst day on a bike,” said Gallopin.
Gallopin wasn’t the only one to lose big chunks of time to Nibali. After sprinting away from his small chase group, the Italian national champion caught and passed a spent Rodriguez and held off a desperate chase from Frenchman Thibaut Pinot to win his first-ever Tour stage. He now leads the general classification by 2:23 over Porte.
Meanwhile, the race was forced absorb the loss of another major favorite. First to go down had been defending champion Chris Froome, who crashed three times in two days on the Tour’s cobbled stages before quitting midway through Stage 5 with a fractured right hand and left wrist.
Contador emerged from those stages physically unscathed, though at the price of the precious minutes he lost to Nibali. “[Stage 5] was an extremely complicated stage,” Contador told VeloNews afterward. “You had to be cautious at every turn. We lost a lot of time. The most important thing was to avoid crashing. My terrain is still to come.”
Stage 10, whose seven climbs gave it a profile resembling a busted piece of safety glass, figured to be Contador’s first chance to pull back significant time on Nibali. Instead, like Froome, Contador never got the chance to enjoy the mountains that catapulted him to glory in the past. “It’s a big shame,” said Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo Sports Director Philippe Mauduit. “But that's the law of sport. All teams go through this.”
Notes from the Tour
- American Ted King also abandoned on the stage after losing contact with the peloton early in the race. King started the stage in last place, seven seconds behind China’s Ji Cheng and nearly two hours behind Gallopin.
- This was the second stage to finish at La Planche des Belles Filles. In 2012, Froome won, while teammate and eventual winner Bradley Wiggins donned the yellow jersey for the first time. That year, Nibali finished fourth on the day, seven seconds behind.
- For the ninth straight year, a Frenchman failed to win on Bastille Day. The last to do so was breakaway specialist David Moncoutié, who won into Digne les Bains in 2005.
- The first of the Tour’s two rest days are tomorrow. The riders will spend it in Besançon, where they will start when the race restarts on Wednesday.