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Posted on 9th Jul 2014

Nibali a boss on the cobbles, Contador struggles, Froome abandons

July 09, Stage 5: Ypres Arenberg Porte du Hainaut 155.5km – 
It was a day of a hundred stories, and Lars Boom’s victory in Arenberg was as good as any, but stage 5 of the Tour de France will surely be remembered as the day Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) placed a significant early down payment on final overall victory, and the day Chris Froome’s title defence came to a sudden, shuddering halt.

Rain was general all over Flanders and northern France on Wednesday, and that conditioned the racing even from before the start in Ypres. Two of the planned nine sectors of cobbles were removed from the parcours by the race jury, and the greasy conditions then proceeded to end Froome’s Tour even before the first cobbled section.

The Briton crashed not once but twice in the early exchanges. Froome remounted gingerly after the first incident 35 kilometres in, but the second crash, shortly before the Carrefour de l’Arbre, saw him abandon the race with a suspected broken wrist.

The terrible beauty of the Tour, however, is that it waits for no man, not even the defending champion, and once on the cobblestones, Nibali, the current wearer of the yellow jersey, set about ensuring that his hold on the overall lead might just be a lasting one.

As he showed during the attritional opening week of last year’s Giro d’Italia, one of Nibali’s great attributes is his calm in an emergency and the Sicilian showed admirable sangfroid here. The seven sectors of pavé felt like fresh circles of Hell for the majority of the overall contenders, but Nibali avoided a place among the damned, negotiating the cobbles with considerable confidence, aided by a strong Astana squad.

“It was a tremendous stage. I almost crashed three times but I got through with a bit of luck and a bit of ability. We also got our tactics right by putting [Lieuwe] Westra in the early break and then [Jakob] Fuglsang was just exceptional,” Nibali said.

Nibali finished the stage in third place, 18 seconds down on Boom, but having made huge gains on every single one of his rivals for victory in Paris. Froome apart, the man who struggled and lost the most was Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), who now trails Nibali by 2:37 on general classification. Richie Porte (9th overall at 1:54), Andrew Talansky (11th at 2:05), Tejay van Garderen and Alejandro Valverde (both at 2:11) fared only slightly better, and they have been left with a mountain to climb.

“Unfortunately, crashes are part of cycling too. I counted the cost of one myself at the Giro in 2010, on the strade bianche at Montalcino,” Nibali said of Froome’s misfortune. “I’ve taken a nice advantage today but I’ll have to keep my feet on the ground. And, of course, Alberto is still someone I’ll have to keep a close watch on.”

In the overall standings, Nibali leads Fuglsang by two seconds, Peter Sagan (Cannondale) by 44 and Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) by 50, but it is his lead over Contador that will please him the most.

Contador lost contact with the Nibali group on the second sector of cobbles with 52 kilometres still to race, and he reached Arenberg 2:54 down on Boom. In spite of his disappointment and his deficit, the Spaniard looked to strike an optimistic note at the finish.

“I had blocked gears because they were full of mud and I couldn’t not use them so I lost lots of time,” he explained. “But the important thing is that I haven’t fallen off. Nibali did well – he was in exactly the right place at the right time.”


Legion of Boom
Another man with an exquisite sense of timing – and the legs to match – was the stage winner Boom. Together with teammate Sep Vanmarcke, Boom’s forcing on the cobbles at Ennevelin forced the winning split, and he avoided the pitfalls thereafter to remain part of the leading group as crashes and punctures whittled it down to just 15 men in the final 20 kilometres.

When Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) allowed a gap to open behind the Astana locomotive on the penultimate sector, Boom quickly closed the gap, divesting himself of the dangermen Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek) in the process. Outnumbered three to one, he allowed Westra to burn himself up before smartly jumping away from Nibali and Fuglsang with 5 kilometres to go on the mud-slicked pavé at Wallers.

“On section two, I saw the guys from Astana had a gap, I think because Kwiatkowski had a flat tyre, so I jumped across the gap,” Boom said. “I made it and then my plan was to jump away on the last sector, and that’s how it worked out.”

Boom made light work of the cobbles to win the stage at a startling average speed of 47 kilometres per hour, but it took the final finishers over half an hour more to come to the end of their suffering. “For sure it was a special day and a heroic day, with the wind, the rain, the cobbles and the mud,” Boom said.


Early attrition
The news that two sectors of cobbles had been removed from the course ought to have been a source of relief to many, but instead it only seemed to exacerbate the existing nervousness in the peloton. Long before hostilities began on the cobbles, the combination of greasy roads and jitters saw a spate of early crashes. Arnaud Démare (FDJ.fr), André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) and Marcel Kittel (Gianti-Shimano) were among the many fallers, but the unfortunate Froome would prove to be the day’s only abandon.

The day’s early break was no échappée bidon, containing Westra and world time trial champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), as well as Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Belisol), Marcus Burghardt (BMC), Rein Taaramae (Cofidis), Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEdge), Mat Hayman (Orica-GreenEdge), Janier Acevedo (Garmin-Sharp), and Samuel Dumoulin (Ag2r-La Mondiale). Though they, too, were not immune to crashes – Martin, Dumoulin and Acevedo all hit the ground at various points – the strongmen of the group had sufficient reserves to stay clear until the final 30 kilometres.

In anticipation of the first cobbled sector, the overall contenders’ teams began to marshal their riders to the front, but it was Sagan’s Cannondale squad who seized the initiative approaching the Carrefour de l’Arbre, splitting the peloton on its entry to the Hell of the North.

In Dante’s Inferno, the damned are judged at the entry to the second circle of hell by Minos, who indicates their place in the underworld by circling his tail about him. On the second sector of this particular vision of hell, it was a vicious turn from Belkin’s Sep Vanmarcke that decided the fate of many of the overall contenders. Nibali, Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), Kwiatkowski and – initially – Talansky could follow, but Contador, Valverde and company were damned to spend an afternoon chasing their tails.

Talansky and Van Den Broeck lost contact with the Nibali group after going off the road at Bersée with 41 kilometres remaining, by which point Contador was already 45 seconds down and beginning to flounder. Nibali himself narrow avoided disaster when his teammate Maxim Iglinskiy fell in front of him, but his deft sidestep was a sign, perhaps, that his was to be a blessed day.

With 28 kilometres to go, the Nibali group caught the remnants of the day’s break, including the irrepressible Westra, and his pace-making helped to whittle the front of the race down to a crew of just 16 hardy survivors. Boom – and Vanmarcke, until a puncture dashed his hopes in the finale – was especially active every time they hit the cobbles, and with 20 kilometres remaining, Contador trailed by almost two minutes.

While Astana continued to drive on the front, there was not total cohesion among the leaders, with Sagan and Cancellara clearly concerned by one another and worried too, perhaps, by the presence of four QuickStep riders in the group. It continued to fragment and reform on the run-in until the Astana trio and Boom punched their way clear with 11 kilometres remaining to carve up the honours between them.

Behind, a strong Garmin-Sharp delegation was attempting to help Talansky regain contact, while Geraint Thomas put in a fine shift in support of Richie Porte. Contador, meanwhile, had Tejay van Garderen, Valverde and Bauke Mollema (Belkin) for company in a large group that seemed simply too unwieldy to coax into a cohesive pursuit.

By contast, Nibali was pedalling with remarkable fluidity. After struggling through the early part of the season, the Italian has found his form on the grandest stage of all. And, on the evidence of his three confident days in yellow to to date, Nibali will carry the burden of leadership lightly.