Vincenzo Nibali's dominance of the 2014 Tour de France continued with his fourth stage win
Eclipse was the name of a racehorse on whom its owner Dennis O’Kelly, an 18th-century cad with a drink problem, used to lay lavish bets, before the gout finally killed him in 1787. “Eclipse first, and the rest nowhere,” O’Kelly would say, before cleaning out his turf accountant for the umpteenth time.
Vincenzo Nibali first, the rest nowhere. Or at least, Vincenzo Nibali first, the rest of the Tour de France overall contenders somewhere down the mountain, scrapping like navvies in a bar on payday over the lower placings and minor competitions.
We got a good measure of how superior Nibali is to everybody else in the Tour de France on Hautacam, where the 18th and final mountain stage finished. There was no need for the Italian to hold back when he launched himself skyward with 9.5 kilometres to go, no need to pace himself, or watch his rivals, or keep something back for the next day.
In attacking alone, Nibali was raising himself aloof from the riders occupying the places just below him in the GC. He almost raised himself above Rafal Majka in the King of the Mountains classification although the Pole just managed to hang on to his lead. The gaps behind Nibali were telling.
Just over a minute after Nibali crossed the line for his fourth stage win of the Tour, Thibaut Pinot, Jean-Christophe Peraud and Tejay Van Garderen finished, along with passenger Majka. The next group, consisting of Romain Bardet, Bauke Mollema, Leopold Konig, Haimar Zubeldia, Alejandro Valverde, Laurens Ten Dam and Frank Schleck, conceded just under two minutes. The next group, three riders, was well over three minutes down. The next, over four.
The Tour is not over yet. The yellow, green and polka dot jerseys are safe on the shoulders of Nibali, Peter Sagan and Majka, but three mountain ranges, the hills of Yorkshire and the cobbles of northern France have failed to separate second, third and fourth overall by more than 15 seconds. Pinot is 7-10 behind, Peraud is at 7-23, and Valverde at 7-15. The race for second and third is close and finely-balanced. The race for first, history will demonstrate, finished somewhere around the Tour’s halfway point.
20 riders went clear early on in the stage. Some of the usual suspects were there: Thomas Voeckler and Sylvain Chavanel, again. Alessandro De Marchi and Jan Bakelandts again. Blel Kadri and Kevin Reza again. With the number of teams having won stages still standing at only eight, a lot of riders were hoping to salvage the Tour today.
But of those 20 riders, only four had the legs to play a significant part. Mikel Nieve and Blel Kadri dropped everybody on the Col du Tourmalet, while Jon Izaguirre and Jesus Herrada, both of Movistar, were planning a tactical ambush, along with their leader Valverde.
Valverde attacked on the descent of the Tourmalet, and linked up with Herrada and Izaguirre, about four and a half minutes behind Kadri and Nieve. The two Movistar domestiques pulled Valverde to a 15-second lead over the yellow jersey, and then, in an inexorably unfolding slow-motion car crash of tragicomic anti-climax, were easily pulled back by Nibali’s Astana team. All that the Movistar escapade achieved was to pull the yellow jersey group close enough to Nieve and Kadri to guarantee their escape would not be a successful one. (It also might have tired Valverde out – he looked shaky on Hautacam.)
Nieve started Hautacam in the lead, dropping Kadri immediately, but was virtually in sight of the yellow jersey group when Horner made an attack. Nibali countered, with almost insouciant ease, while the other GC contenders didn’t even try to follow. Nibali went again – where else? – on a short downhill false flat just after the village of Vierbordes, two kilometres into the climb. Then he floated past Nieve, and ascended into Tour heaven.