As Tour de France enters the final phase of racing, there seems to be only one probable winner. British rider Bradley Wiggins, with the support of his team Sky Procycling, has commanded the race like he has owned it. The super-domestique Christ Froome has played a perfect second fiddle to his leader. Yet, for the cynics, there is a silent assassin (read not Denis Menchov) lurking in the shadows, waiting for his moment to arrive. For those cynics, Liquigas top man Vincenzo Nibali might just be the man to spoil the party for Sky Procycling team; the downhill finish on the 16th stage might just be his moment.
Nibali shot to fame among the cycling fans at the Stage 17 of the 2009 Tour de France. On the slopes of day’s final climb – Col de la Colombiere, he used his superior descending skills to first, close the gap on Lance Armstrong & then worked in tandem with him to limit the time losses to other leaders. The daring act eventually earned him his first overall top-ten finish at a Grand Tour. Ever since that epic moment, the Italian has continued to grow in stature adding more feathers to his cap. He secured his first podium finish at Giro d’Italia in 2010, riding in support of his teammate and winner Ivan Basso. Then he capped off the wonderful year by winning his first Grand Tour at Vuelta a Espana. More importantly all through these years, he has built a reputation for being one of the best descender of his generation and earning himself the sobriquet ‘The Shark’.
After giving Tour de France a miss for the last two seasons, Nibali finally decided to try his luck at this year’s tour. Given the pedigree of top ten finishes in his last five grand tours, he was rightly touted as one of the pre-race favourites. So far, he has lived up to the tag with near flawless performance. However, even the best from the Italian has not been good enough to overhaul Sky Procycling. The team Sky has ridden an exceptionally excellent tour to hold onto the top two spots, leaving the likes of Nibali to conjure something special to dislodge them.
Something Special- ‘The Shark Attack’
Given the inherent dangers associated with descending, not many cyclists use it as an attacking strategy. However, the brave Nibali is not one of many. He has often used his gift on the slopes of mountain stages to spring surprise attacks on his rivals. On stage six of last year’s Vuelta a Espana, he & three of his Liquigas teammates performed one of the best attacking moves in recent times. The four men sped off from the leading group on the descends of day’s final climb and eventually went on to finish the stage 20 seconds ahead of the other contenders. Even in the current tour, he has repeatedly resorted to this strategy to unsettle Wiggins and team Sky. In the 10th stage, the Italian attacked the peloton in the descent of Col du Grand Colombier. But the work rate of Wiggins teammates – Richie Porte and Micheal Rogers, helped the yellow jersey group to reel in the Italian on the next climb.
On Wednesday, the first of the Pyrenees stages will provide yet another opportunity for Nibali to perform another one of his escape-coup. Finishing terrain at the sixteenth stage is similar to the one at afore mentioned 10th stage. However, what makes this stage ideal for Nibali is that the stage features two High-Category (HC) climbs. These two demanding climbs are expected to seep energy out of the pace-setting SKY Team before day’s final climb. Hence, it is unlikely that Wiggins and Froome will have lieutenants Porte and Rogers by their side on the final climb. Moreover, the strain of past two-weeks racing would have taken a toll on these domestiques. This handicap of Wiggins’s team should work in Nibali’s favour, giving him the freedom to attack.
Much will depend on when Nibali chooses his moment to attack. He will not want to leave it too late. In that sense, attack on the descents of Col d’Aspin looks most probable option. However, that is still 35 KMs of hard racing in the wind. So, Nibali will hope that his under firing teammates – Ivan Basso & Sylvester Schymd – will come to his aid at the right moment. In addition, his team would not want to rule out the idea of having a man in the breakaway and employing the strategy that Andy Schleck used in the tour last year.
The absence of Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, and injuries to key riders has left the tour devoid of any excitement. Defending champions Cadel Evans’s loss of form has added further misery to the viewers. So, as a cycling fan, I only hope that Nibali’s daring acts prove fruitful to spice up the otherwise drab tour. Yes, it isn’t any easy task; four whole minutes to be gained on the Yellow jersey. But again, this is Tour de France, expect anything.