It’s almost a Tour de France tradition for the pre-race talk to not be centred around the upcoming edition, but instead, around the drama taking place off the bikes.
After an opening phase of the Tour de France best suited to defending champion Vincenzo Nibali, it is the Italian who actually appears the most likely to lose his ‘Big Four’ status.
Nibali’s imperious performance over the cobbles last year had many making him the favourite for this year’s Tour. He was certainly the rider many envisaged wearing the maillot jaune as the Tour headed down to Pau for the first rest day.
Chris Froome famously threw his numerous Credit Lyonnais cuddly toys out of the Rapha-branded pram when the 2015 route was announced – fewer time trials and a return to the cobbles were supposedly a good reason for him to focus on the Giro and the Vuelta instead.
But here we are, on the eve of the Pyrenees, and it’s Froome who has made the yellow jersey his own, leaving his rivals needing to make up lost time in the mountains.
There’s no doubting that Nibali looked masterful on Tuesday’s cobbled Stage 4 to Cambrai – but for all his elegant adroitness on the pavé, the awkward elbows-and-arms technique of Froome proved just as effective.
Tensions rose between the pair when Nibali – quite outrageously, to be fair – blamed the Sky rider for the fall that felled a cluster of race favourites on the uphill finish at Le Havre one day later.
It was clearly the fault of Tony Martin, the then yellow jersey, but perhaps Nibali was understandably confused, associating Froome with yellow more than anyone else.
Having already lost time in the Dutch crosswinds in Stage 2, Nibali conceded 10 precious seconds to his rivals on the Mûr-de-Bretagne in Stage 8, before dropping further back after Astana’s slight wobble in the time trial to Plumelec.
The upshot of all this is that Nibali is the worst placed of the so-called Big Four entering the high mountains. He is currently 2:22 down on Froome. Alberto Contador trails by 1:03 and Nairo Quintana by 1:59.
Where will Nibali make up his time? Your guess is as good as mine.
While most cycling fans can envisage a scenario where either Contador or Quintana – perhaps even both – ride clear of Froome on an off-day (we have yet to see one so far), no one would realistically expect Nibali to out-perform the current yellow jersey and the other two in the mountains.
The 30-year-old Sicilian is a diesel-powered climber with admirable staying power whose apparently wondrous uphill ability was perhaps a little skewered last year by the absence of Quintana and the early withdrawals of Froome and Contador.
Put simply: his rivals gone, Nibali only had to out-climb 37-year-old former mountain biker Jean-Christophe Peraud to win the Tour last year.
In fact, in Nibali’s three Grand Tour wins he has never really been in direct competition with any of the ‘galacticos’ he’s up against today.
Sure, part of winning a race is not crashing out, and Nibali won the 2014 race fair and square. But would he have won in La Planche de Belles Filles, Chamrousse and Hautacam last year had Quintana been racing or had the other two stayed on their bikes?
Where Nibali really excels are in mountainous stages with challenging descents, especially when hampered by adverse weather conditions (as we saw in last month’s Dauphiné).
There are few better daredevil downhillers in the peloton than ‘the Shark from the Strait’, and that will put him at a distinct advantage in the third week of the Tour with those downhill finishes at Gap (Stage 16) and Saint-Jean-De-Maurienne (Stage 18).
The obvious problem is that Nibali could well and truly be out of it by then.
After the rest day we have three back-to-back summit finished in the Pyrenees – at La-Pierre-Saint-Martin, Cautarets and Plateau de Beille. In my eyes, Stage 12 to Cauterets will be key.
Supposing the main favourites cancel each other out on the Col de Soudet on Bastille Day on Tuesday – as if often the case in the opening mountain stage of a major Tour – then Nibali could use his downhill expertise to his benefit off the back of the Tourmalet on Wednesday.
The final climb to Cauterets is hardly a monster, and one best suited to Nibali’s strengths, especially given its positioning after the Tourmalet.
Should the Italian fail to make up lost ground here, I fear it could be curtains. And even if he does, it’s followed by arguably the hardest summit finish in this year’s race, the brutish 16-kilometre ascent to Beille (on a day which will see a shed load of riders no doubt kicked out for finishing outside the limit).
Should he concede his place at cycling’s top table, Nibali would be in good company. Already the likes of Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Pierre Rolland (Europcar) and perhaps even Romain Bardet (Ag2R-La Mondiale) have had to switch their early target of a podium to stage wins or the polka for jersey.
Froome’s grip on the race is commanding – and yet it’s not irreversible.
So far the first nine days of the Tour have been very much mirroring the battle you see in the Tour of Flanders between the main favourites jostling to get into the best position ahead of the Oude Kwaremont or Paterberg climbs.
The opening nine days have been all about being in the right position when the true challenges of the Tour start. Froome and BMC’s Tejay van Garderen have that advantage for now, but it will mean nothing if they can’t protect their lead when the road heads uphill.
While Nibali looks unlikely to return onto their back wheels – and it’s for that reason that the Italian was the only member of the Big Four that I omitted from my two fantasy Tour teams – the same cannot be said of Quintana and Contador.
Contador – perhaps not as much as the stealthy Rigoberto Uran (just 1:18 down in sixth place) – has kept quiet since Utrecht, masterfully limiting his losses after his demanding Giro d’Italia win.
No one is sure how the Spaniard will fare in the mountains, but on his day he is a better climber than Froome, as last year’s Vuelta clearly showed.
But it’s Quintana who really excites. In Monday’s rest day edition of L’Équipe the French sports daily stressed that while Froome is leading his Sky army with aplomb, the diminutive Colombian climber lies in ambush.
If Nibali will almost certainly struggle to make up his 2:22 deficit over the entire remaining 11 stages, Quintana could well claw back his current 1:59 shortfall on just one climb. And climbs are what this Tour has in abundance: around 30 of them, in fact.