Vincenzo Nibali Keeps A Cool Head In Hectic Tour

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by Barnaby CHESTERMAN

PARIS, July 28, 2014 (AFP) – Vincenzo Nibali didn’t just have to beat his
opposition at the Tour de France, he also had to overcome the elements and
general chaos before being crowned in Paris.

The 2014 edition of the Grand Boucle had it all, except, thankfully, a
doping scandal.

From the crashes, dire weather, extreme heat, surprises, upsets and the
clear supremacy of the experts in individual disciplines, it was an epic Tour.

And there was even the return to prominence of the home nation, securing a
podium spot for the first time in 17 years and in fact managing to get two
riders on in the top three for the first time since 1984.

But all through it, there was one major constant: Nibali was by far the
best.

The 29-year-old Italian won four stages but he didn’t just rely on his
strengths to beat the rest, he beat them in every domain.

He won three mountain-top finishes and claimed a breakaway victory with a
daring escape on a fast descent.

But he also staggered his major rivals with a brilliant ride on the stage
five cobbles and with a solid performance on the penultimate stage timetrial.

It might have been different had the two pre-race favourites made it to the
end but the defending champion Chris Froome and twice former winner Alberto
Contador both crashed out.

Froome hit the deck on the fourth stage, injuring his left wrist and right
hand. He tried gamely to soldier on wearing a splint on his left wrist but
after hitting the deck twice more in stage five, before even reaching the
perilous cobbles, he walked away.

A day later, tests found that he had broken both his wrist and hand.

Contador had lost more than 2min 30sec to Nibali on the cobbles but was
expected to start pulling back time in the mountains, yet on the first stage
with a summit finish, he crashed on a fast descent, breaking his shinbone and
having to leave the race.

By then, several other star names in the peloton had crashed out as well,
with neither sprint ace and former world champion Mark Cavendish nor 2010
champion Andy Schleck even reaching French shores — both withdrawing during
the first three stages in Britain.

Both would need to undergo operations, Cavendish on a separated shoulder
and Schleck to an injured knee.

Already, Marcel Kittel had confirmed himself as the best sprinter in the
world, a mantle he seemed to have taken from Cavendish the previous year.

The burly German won three of the first four stages in sprint finishes and
when he triumphed on the Champs Elysees for the second year in a row, he match
his 2013 feat of winning four stages.

Alexander Kristoff had provided some sort of opposition in winning two
sprint stages but only ones with lumpy run-ins where Kittel couldn’t follow
the fast pace over short climbs.

And on the Champs, where it mattered most, Norway’s Kristoff couldn’t match
Kittel’s top speed.

Yet despite their battles, for the third year in a row Peter Sagan won the
sprinters’ green points jersey, thanks to his great consistency of finishing
eight times in the top four, although without winning a stage.

It was a great Tour for Germans with Andre Greipel winning a stage and Tony
Martin taking two.

Martin proved yet again that he is the best against the clock by winning
the 54km timetrial my more than 1min 30sec.

The three-time world champion in that discipline also had a solo breakaway
victory.

Rafal Majka was the big revelation in the mountains, winning two stages and
the king of the mountains polkadot jersey and suggesting he might be a
contender in the future.

The young Pole, who was sixth at May’s Giro d’Italia, seemed to be the only
rider capable of competing with Nibali when the roads went up.

For the host nation it was the Tour of resurrection as Jean-Christophe
Peraud finished second and Thibaut Pinot third.

Romain Bardet came sixth and Pierre Roland was 11th in France’s best
performance in decades.

But it was a miserable Tour for the formerly all-conquering Sky team.
Once Froome crashed out their hopes turned to Australian Richie Porte, who
failed miserably, finishing 23rd.

It was, however, a history-making Tour for Ji Cheng.

He may have finished 164th and last, at more than 50min from the next rider
and over six hours behind Nibali — the biggest gap between first and last
since 1954 — but he was both the first Chinese to start a Tour, and to finish
it.

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