Tour de France favorites Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) have been racing Tirreno-Adriatico and also studying Team Sky up close and painful.
Last year in France, Nibali couldn’t break away from the Sky machine of Wiggins, Froome, Rogers and Porte. Contador got his first taste of Sky in last years’ Vuelta a Espana.
Based on the results of stage six in Tirreno-Adriatico, their new Tour de France strategy is taking shape: pray for hard rain and cold temperatures.
Nibali had lost time on Saturday’s climb to Prato di Tivo and more time on the uphill finish in Cheiti a day later. Froome and his Colombian Sky climbers Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran worked him and Contador over pretty good.
However, today in Port Sant’Elpidio, the tactical situation turned in Niabli’s favor. It wasn’t a clever shift in strategy that knocked Froome out of the leader’s jersey. And while Nibali had plenty of help from breakaway pals Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), his best friend was Mother Nature.
“We were well prepared,” said Nibali. “The tactic in my head was that I’d go if I felt good on the last climb. I’d looked at it on the previous times up it. Then I felt better when the weather got worse. I felt better and better.”
Perhaps like Lance Armstrong, the Shark from Messina views bad weather as a competitive advantage. Perhaps, the dominant Sky machine isn’t that water-proof.
First, the rain storms damped the spirits and energy of Froome who spent the off-season in the warm weather of South Africa before starting his season in balmy Oman.
Then the cold weather caused a mental error from Froome, who until today had over 30 seconds on the rest of the field. With the rain pouring down, Froome opted for a vest instead of a long-sleeve jacket. That wardrobe malfunction made the situation even more challenging.
“I don’t think I was dressed warmly enough for the weather,” he said. “There was only really one chance to go back and get the jackets; I chose a short sleeve one and I think that was probably the wrong choice. Once it had started raining it was really too late to go back, it was going too fast to try to get back to the car.”
Sadly for Froome, it is against UCI regulations for Henao and Uran to ride alongside Froome holding umbrellas over his head.
For all the justifiable hype on Sky’s scientific approach and obsession with marginal gains, it ain’t easy to control the weather. It reminds Twisted Spoke of the 2010 Tour de France prologue when Sky tried to out-guess the rain. They slotted Bradley Wiggins later in the day hoping for dryer roads but instead he got off to a poor and very wet start.
When the weather turns nasty, team tactics often go out the window and it’s survival of the fittest and every man for himself. Thus it was an ideal race situation for Nibali.
“I realised at the start that the stage was going to be difficult when 18 [riders] went away. I knew it was a lot and that on a hilly stage like that, there are far less tactics involved,” said Nibali. ‘If you’re not good, you suffer a lot.”
Nibali showed his strength in the rain and let’s not forget last season Rodriguez won in Lombardia in nearly apocalyptic conditions. You had two rain men off the front and only a young bad-ass like Peter Sagan could stick with them.
“For sure it was great attack. I’ve done others, but I’ve often not been that lucky,” said Nibali.
To win the Tour de France against Froome and Team Sky, Vincenzo Nibali is going to need plenty of luck. It’s also going to require nasty rains and cold temperatures.