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NIBALI IS REWRITING THE SCRIPT

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It’s been a bad several days for sporting pundits. At the World Cup, defending champions Spain played three games and were out—after being humiliated 5-1 by the Netherlands in their opener. At Wimbledon, defending champion Andy Murray had an early exit, beaten in three straight sets. And on Wednesday at the Tour de France another British defending champion went three and out—Chris Froome suffered small wrist and hand fractures after a third crash in 24 hours.

John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada

So, with the script for a Froome-Contador duel shredded before the end of the Tour’s first week, a new narrative is emerging. This one is potentially far more exciting. It has a so-far dominant race leader in Vincenzo Nibali with a host of contenders ready to challenge him when the first Cat. 1 climbs of this Tour are reached this coming Sunday and Monday.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that it’s highly important to have a great first week at a modern Tour. Good starts have paid off the last three years for Tour winners Froome, Brad Wiggins and Cadel Evans; and what Team Astana did on Wednesday’s apocalyptic stage 5 has given Nibali and teammate Jakob Fuglsang (two seconds back) a strong option on the final victory on July 27.

Nibali didn’t need a mountain stage to gap all his rivals, but stage 5 over the cobblestones of northern France did produce an alpine-like result. Nibali’s gains on his immediate rivals varied from 48 seconds (Michal Kwiatkowski of Omega Pharma-Quick Step), to 1:43 (Jurgen Van den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol), to 2:35 (Alberto Contador of Tinkoff-Saxo), while the 193 riders were scattered over 33 minutes by the finish alongside the old coalmining shafts at Arenberg.

Nibali made those important gains thanks to good planning, high motivation and inspired tactics. But most of all it was the unseasonably cool, wet and windy conditions that played to his greatest strengths. Though he has yet to race the cobbled classics, the Italian champ was schooled on riding the pavé earlier this year by Peter Van Petegem, the 2003 Paris-Roubaix winner, who excelled at racing in the worst conditions his native Flanders could offer.

Nibali is built from the same fabric. He has had multiple experiences of racing in terrible weather. He dominated the 2013 Giro d’Italia, partly thanks to his ease at racing in constant rain, and even snow. But this stage 5 of the 2014 Tour de France was most like stage 7 of the 2010 Giro. That was the stage when torrential rain turned Tuscany’s strade bianche from roads of white gravel into ribbons of milk-chocolate slush—with a steep uphill finish at Montalcino being the final turn of the screw on men who were drenched and covered from helmet to cleats in slimy mud.

Nibali was wearing the leader’s pink jersey that terrible day, but he lost it when he and his then team leader Ivan Basso crashed before reaching the white roads and conceded two minutes to a small breakaway group led in by Cadel Evans. Without Nibali’s determination and stamina, Basso could have lost that Giro at Montalcino; instead, Basso went on to win the race for a second time.

Also riding the 2010 Giro was Richie Porte, then making his grand tour debut, who went on to wear the pink jersey a few days after the strade bianche stage (and finished seventh overall). The gutsy Australian, who is now leading Team Sky after Froome’s withdrawal, mentioned that experience after placing eighth at Arenberg. That was a brilliant performance after he lost time in the crash that also brought down Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing and Alejandro Valverde of Movistar on the final roundabout before the riders reached the first section of cobblestones. Porte fought his way back with Welsh teammate Geraint Thomas, racing at similar speeds to the breakaway led by Nibali, Fuglsang and their Astana teammate Lieuwe Westra.

It has been Nibali’s week and all the signs point to him being able to hang on to the yellow jersey for a long time—perhaps all the way to Paris. However, the first summit finish is awaiting the peloton on Saturday afternoon at Gérardmer (almost 2 kilometers long at an average of 10.3 percent, following two longer climbs in the previous 20 kilometers). And then, on Monday, comes the feared mountaintop finish at La Planche des Belles Filles (6 kilometers at 8.5 percent with a 20-percent kicker at the end), the day’s fourth Cat. 1 climb that also includes three others ascents in the mountains of the Vosges.

By Tuesday’s rest day, the ink may have dried on the script for the 101st Tour de France. If Nibali has his renowned climbing legs, he may be already out of reach of Contador and company. But right now, these are the time gaps the Italian enjoys over the other top team leaders: 1. Nibali (Astana); 2. Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma), at 0:50; 3. Van den Broeck (Lotto), at 1:45; 4. Porte (Sky), at 1:54; 5. Talansky (Garmin), at 2:05; 6. Valverde (Movistar), at 2:11; 7. Bardet (AG2R), at 2:11; 8. Costa (Lampre), at 2:11; 9. Mollema (Belkin), at 2:27; 10. Contador (Tinkoff), at 2:37; 11. van Garderen (BMC), at 3:14; 12. Pinot (FDJ), at 3:24.

But maybe we should expect the unexpected, perhaps with Valverde or Contador emerging over this second weekend of what is developing into a magnificent Tour.

You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson