Tour de France 2014: Mountain Stages Reveal Contenders, Crush Dreams

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It has been an incredibly revealing three days in the 2014 Tour de France, as the riders arrived in the mountains over the weekend, giving them their hardest days in the saddle yet. But those tough stages have also revealed who the true contenders are for the Yellow Jersey this year, while also ending the aspirations of others.

Heading into the weekend, Italian rider Vincenzo Nibali wore the Maillot Jaune, with several top challengers, including Alberto Contador, lurking just off the pace. On Sunday, he surrendered that jersey to French rider Tony Gallopin, who put in a great ride to take charge of the race. But it was today’s stage that would separate the contenders from the pretenders, and the 161.5 km (100.3 mile) route from Mulhouse to La Planche des Belles Filles, which featured several massive climbs, including a mountain top finish, lived up to the hype.

Early on in the stage, the slopes weren’t too difficult, and the peloton stayed together long enough for Peter Sagan to claim the intermediate sprint points to help extend his lead in the Green Jersey competition. But soon there after, the non-climbers were left in the dust, as the riders who are strong in the mountains took center stage. It was a grueling battle throughout the day, with Nibali waiting until the final two climbs of the day to make his move. And what a move it ended up being, as the Italian rider not only won the stage on the late Category 1 climb of the day, but also reclaimed the Yellow Jersey in the process.

The Tour now looks like it is Nibali’s to lose, because the other big news of the day is that Alberto Contador was forced to abandon the race. The Spaniard crashed heavily on one of the big climbs of the day after striking something on the road. After giving up several minutes of time to the peloton, he tried to ride on to rejoin the lead group, only to withdraw while on the road. Contador is the second of the top contenders to pull out, with defending champ Chris Froome leaving after a series of crashes last week.

With 11 stages, and two rest days, yet to come the question now is, who can challenge Nibali. Today he demonstrated that he is the strongest climber in the race, pulling away from everyone else on the final climb of the day. If he continues to be that strong in the Alps and Pyrenees, he will be untouchable. At the moment, he holds a 2 minute, 23 second lead over second place rider Richie Porte, and 2 minutes, 47 seconds over third place Alejandro Valverde. American Tejay Van Gaderen is currently in 7th, 3 minutes, 56 seconds off the pace.

As mentioned, Peter Sagan holds on to his Green Jersey for the top sprinter, and continues to extend his lead in that category. Joaquim Rodriguez has taken the Polka Dot Jersey for the King of the Mountains competition with a great ride today, while Romain Bardet is now the best young rider in the Tour, pulling on the White Jersey.

Tomorrow is the first rest day, which will give the riders the chance to lick their wounds, and recover some before continuing on Wednesday. That stage will be 187.5 km (116.5 miles) in length, and run from Besançon to Oyonnax. That stage will include some rolling hills to test the legs once again, although it won’t have the tough climbs that were on the route today. It will be the kind of day that a breakaway could succeed, or a single great all-around rider could take off to get a stage win. Don’t expect significant attacks, or changes to the various classifications, but it should still be an interesting stage none the less.

Kraig Becker