Nibali eyes a valuable ally in new leader Gallopin
The first major mountain-top finish in this year's Tour de France could see a host of fireworks of the two-wheeled variety, as well as the more conventional ones the French always like to ignite on Bastille Day.
Yesterday's stage through the Vosges saw all the favourites ease back in order to conserve their strength for today's tougher mountain stage, with victory going to Tony Martin. Top-placed favourite Vincenzo Nibali, meanwhile, took the strategic option of ceding the overall lead to France's Tony Gallopin.
Gallopin is not expected to hold the lead for more than a few days at most. However, for Nibali the Frenchman's Lotto-Belisol squad will be an invaluable ally in today's arduous 161km mountain stage.
Seven classified climbs, culminating with the first-category 6km ascent to La Planche des Belles Filles, look certain to see the Italian come under major pressure. Alberto Contador already took three seconds off the Sicilian's lead on Saturday and even before yesterday's stage the Madrileno was warning he would stage another major attack today.
There is certainly a historical precedent for big changes overall on today's final climb, situated deep in the Vosges mountains. La Planche des Belles Filles was first tackled in the 2012 Tour, where after a dramatic show of collective strength by Team Sky, Chris Froome claimed the stage win, while Bradley Wiggins moved into yellow – and kept it all the way to Paris.
With Froome now absent, of those favourites present this year, Nibali will be feeling particularly encouraged, knowing he took fourth on the same climb in the 2012 Tour, seven seconds down on Froome, while Sky's Richie Porte was 13th, over a minute back.
However, comparisons with 2012 can only go so far: that July La Planche des Belles Filles was only preceded by two minor mountain climbs, rather than a full-scale series of ascents like in 2014.
Porte, meanwhile, was working as a team helper for Wiggins and Froome, rather than racing for himself. Perhaps even more importantly, in 2012 Contador was not present.
Yesterday's stage win was claimed in impressive fashion by Mark Cavendish's German team-mate Martin, who shed his breakaway companion Alessandro de Marchi 60km from the line and then soloed to victory.
Gallopin, meanwhile, gave the French something to cheer for on Bastille Day as the Lotto-Belisol rider formed part of a 25-man chasing group which gained time on week-long leader Nibali. (© Independent News Service)