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THE TOUR ENTERS ITS DECISIVE PHASE

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The first few days in the mountains—three in the Vosges and one in the Jura—changed the complexion of the 101st Tour de France in both unexpected and expected ways. The unexpected was the unfortunate stage 10 crash that eliminated Alberto Contador, five days after defending champion Chris Froome crashed out, to leave a vacuum among the top favorites. The expected was the continued good form of race leader Vincenzo Nibali and the sifting out of the other main contenders.

John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada

Contador’s exit with a fractured tibia was painful for him and the race. But his brave decision to continue riding for half an hour after his fall until the pain became too great has regained the Spaniard much of the sympathy that dissipated during his long, fruitless fight against his 2010 clenbuterol positive. What’s regretful for this Tour is that Contador (and his Tinkoff-Saxo team) had shown soaring climbing strength on the first stage in the Vosges and he was poised to test Nibali on the double-digit slopes of the finish at La Planche aux Belles Filles last Monday.

Instead, Nibali, after a strong lead-out from his closest teammate, the grizzled Italian veteran Michele Scarponi, rode away from all the other contenders—albeit gaining only a handful of seconds. Farther back, five team leaders’ GC hopes were evaporating. Omega Pharma’s Michal Kwiatkowski, after threatening the yellow jersey in a long breakaway led by his “Energizer bunny” teammate Tony Martin, crumpled on the final climbs. Lotto-Belisol’s Jurgen Van den Broeck wasn’t at his best on the shorter, steeper climbs of the Vosges. Europcar’s Pierre Rolland was suffering the fatigue effects of a tough Giro d’Italia. Lampre-Merida’s Rui Costa wasn’t on his Tour de Suisse-winning form (and lost more time on stage 11 with bronchitis that has forced him to refocus on winning a stage in the final week). And Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew Talansky, despite his valor, couldn’t overcome the effects of two high-speed crashes within 24 hours—and he left the Tour Thursday morning.

Two other pre-race favorites are still among Nibali’s biggest threats—Alejandro Valverde of Movistar and Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing. And three initial outsiders are getting unforeseen chances of shooting at the Paris podium—Team Sky’s Richie Porte, AG2R La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet and FDJ.FR’s Thibaut Pinot. On overall time, these five potential challengers are between 2:23 (Porte) and 3:56 (van Garderen) behind Nibali, time gaps that will be hard to overcome.

However, when unfancied riders get unexpected chances of shooting for glory, history shows they can be transformed into Tour winners. Before the current era of more predictable outcomes, a regular number of long shots conquered the yellow jersey, including Roger Walkowiak (1956), Gastone Nencini (1960), Lucien Aimar (1966), Lucien Van Impe (1976), and Laurent Fignon (1983).

THE REMAINING CONTENDERS

While Nibali—already the winner of a Vuelta a España and a Giro d’Italia—is still the logical favorite to win this year’s Tour de France, there’s no reason to say the race is over when its toughest difficulties are yet to come. There are two stages with mountaintop finishes in the Alps this Friday and Saturday (see below), three rugged climbing days in the Pyrénées next week, and a long challenging time trial on the final weekend.

Furthermore, Nibali has all eight of his Astana teammates to help him control the remaining stages, though some of them are showing signs of wear after constantly riding at the head of the peloton since the Italian first grabbed the lead back in Sheffield, England, on July 6. His strongest support in the mountains has come from Scarponi and the upbeat Dane Jakob Fuglsang; but if they have to repeatedly chase down dangerous attacks during the upcoming alpine stages Nibali could be left isolated on the long finishing climbs at Chamrousse (Friday) and Risoul (Saturday).

Having his Astana team respond to constant attacks is one of the fears of Nibali’s directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli, but the seasoned Italian official has the connections to call on support of teams that have lost their GC hopes but are still hunting for stage wins. Had Contador not left the race, Martinelli knew the Tinkoff-Saxo team would have been doing much of the tempo riding in the mountains. That’s why he said “Contador’s abandon is not necessarily a good thing for Vincenzo, who now has even more responsibilities. Everybody is going to ride against him.”

One rider who will be attacking Nibali is Valverde, currently in third place at 2:47, who has taken a low profile thus far in the Tour. “I’m feeling better and better,” the Movistar leader said this week. “It’s clear that to aim high it’s necessary to attack at one moment or another and not get lulled by Nibali. I think the Pyrénées will be the determining factor.”

Valverde could well find an ally in his fellow Spaniard, Joaquim Rodriguez of Team Katusha, who is out of GC contention but very much interested in winning mountain stages and defending the polka-dot jersey as best climber. Rodriguez is one who also regrets Contador’s absence. “Contador’s crash is a disaster,” Rodriguez said. “He would have lit a fire in the Pyrénées.”

Valverde could well wait for the three Pyrenean stages before making his move for the yellow jersey; but Team Sky’s Porte, an able deputy for Froome, looks likely to take action in the Alps. “It’s business as usual,” Porte said, referring to the support he’s getting from teammates who’d expected to be riding for Froome. Asked about the 2:23 lead Nibali has over him going into the last nine stages, a confident Porte said, “Nobody is unbeatable. We must attack now, take the race in hand, be aggressive.”

Over the years, other team deputies like Porte have won Tours they weren’t due to contend. In 1965, Felice Gimondi was a last-minute addition to the Salvarani team of Vittorio Adorni—and Tour rookie Gimondi went on to take a solid victory. In 1983, Bernard Hinault couldn’t defend his title and his young teammate Laurent Fignon stepped up to the plate and took a surprise win. And in 1997, Jan Ullrich started the Tour to assist defending champion Bjarne Riis, and also went on to take the title.

Besides Porte and Valverde, van Garderen, currently in sixth at 3:56, is climbing strongly and looks totally capable of moving up the standings—especially if he is on his best time trialing form on stage 20. As for the three Frenchmen in the top 10, youngsters Bardet (in fourth at 3:01) and Pinot (fifth at 3:47) are great climbers and will certainly have the crowd behind them should they have the strength and tactical skills to challenge Nibali. And Bardet’s veteran teammate Jean-Christophe Peraud (seventh at 3:57) might be AG2R’s ace up the sleeve in view of his time-trialing prowess.

THE ALPS

There are only two stages in the Alps, both with summit finishes. The focus is unlikely to be on this first one because the second one, on Saturday (from Grenoble to Risoul), goes over the more famous Lautaret and Izoard mountain passes before the finishing climb to Risoul—but none of those mountain roads features grades steeper than 9 percent, whereas there are multiple double-digit pitches on the last two climbs of stage 13 from St. Étienne to Chamrousse on Friday.

The first of these climbs, the Col de Palaquit, has never been raced in the Tour. It’s a two-part climb, all on narrow roads through the pine forest of the Chartreuse Massif, opening with a 3-kilometer stretch at mostly 10.5 percent, while the middle 4 kilometers of the second half are as steep as 11.7 percent. Once at the top, just below the summit of the notorious Col de Porte, the riders face a 13-kilometer downhill into Grenoble that is replete with erratic turns and adverse cambers—where Hinault famously crashed in the 1977 Critérium du Dauphiné.

Once through the streets of Grenoble, the road goes up again to the town of Uriage-les-Bains to begin the 18-kilometer finishing climb to the Chamrousse ski resort. It is steepest in the first 7 kilometers, with several 11-percent sections, followed by steadier grades through a series of switchbacks. This is the first time that a road stage has finished on this mountain—which hosted an uphill time trial in 2001 taken by Lance Armstrong, a minute faster than Ullrich. On Friday, this climb might see a true upset, should Nibali and the other top riders underestimate the day’s challenges and allow second-tier contenders to go clear on the Palaquit. Whatever the result at Chamrousse, this stage will set the tone for the Tour’s final week.

And as I’ve written throughout the past several weeks, expect the unexpected.