The 2014 Tour de France had been billed as a clash between pre-race favourites Chris Froome and Alberto Contador but after both riders were forced to abandon the contest after separate crashes caused race ending injuries, Italian Vincenzo Nibali now appears to be in pole position to claim his first victory in the prestigious three week event.
A few weeks previously, all three cyclists participated in the Criterium du Dauphine, widely recognised as one of the ideal preparation races for Le Tour. 2012 Tour champion Froome succumbed to a crash during that contest and was unable to match Contador in the mountain stages thereafter. Nibali was also found wanting as the roads steepened.
Contador should have won that race but for a serious misjudgement on the final day yet he was determined to win his first Tour since being banned for alleged drug misuse, a charge which still rigorously denies. The Dauphine proved that he was returning to the form of 2007 and onwards when he became unbeatable in every Grand Tour race in which he competed. His 2010 Tour de France win was later reversed.
Yet the cobbled roads of Northern France during the first week of the 2014 Tour were to prove damaging for the prospects of both Froome and Contador. After suffering two crashes on the cobbled roads, Froome abandoned the race while Contador lost time to race leader Nibali when mud affected the gearing of his bike.
The Spaniard hoped to regain time on the difficult mountain stage to La Planche des Belles Filles but an early accident caused sufficient damage to his leg to necessitate his abandonment. It later transpired that Contador had incurred a fracture of the leg during his fall.
Meanwhile, Nibali proceeded to win the stage and reclaim the yellow stage after attacking on the final climb on the day. Richie Porte of the Sky Team moved into second position with the ultra-consistent Alejandro Valverde occupying third place.
Nibali has never won the Tour de France having finished third behind Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome in 2012, but he is a consistent Grand Tour rider with victories in the 2010 Vuelta a Espana and 2013 Giro d’Italia. He is now the favourite to take the French crown but there will be question marks as to whether any victory will be tarnished by the withdrawal of Froome and Contador.
The climbing form of Nibali was suspect in the Dauphine but was he saving himself for a more forceful ride in the 2014 Tour de France? That question cannot be suitably answered and from now until July 27th, there appear few lively contenders to dislodge Nibali from the yellow jersey.
Should he ultimately prevail in the race, it is to be hoped that he earns the appropriate credit and is not dismissed as a winner by default in the absence of Froome and Contador.