Nibali in pole position after Froome's departure
"Just absolute war today," was how Jonathan Vaughters, the Garmin-Sharp team manager, described it. He was not intending to denigrate the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died on the very fields through which the peloton raced yesterday, from Ypres, on the Belgian side of the border, to Arenberg on the French side. He was just trying to convey an impression of the brutal, wet, slippery stage that fully lived up to all the pre-Tour predictions of carnage.
Chris Froome's two spills, which removed the "devastated" Team Sky's defending champion from the race, were just the start. Froome had not even made it as far as the dreaded cobbles – two sectors of which were removed before play began, deemed unridable – as the peloton drove a fearsome pace over the icily slick roads right from the start. At least a dozen spills, and numerous injuries, would testify to the fact that the parcours still served up a decent challenge, even shorn of those two sectors.
The punishment meted out split the riders and led to plenty of questions regarding the wisdom of racing over cobbles in horrendous weather in a grand tour. "Two words," tweeted disgraced former champion Lance Armstrong. "Riders Union."
Others said it was par for the parcours. "Some people say cobbles are dangerous, but they are a part of cycling," shrugged the great Eddy Merckx.
What they certainly did was to blow the race open. With Froome out, Italy's Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) took full advantage, using the seven sectors of pave to extend his advantage over Tinkoff-Saxo's Alberto Contador.
From starting the day with a two-second lead over his general classification rivals, Nibali ended it with a lead of 2min 37sec over Contador and a lead of 1min 54sec over Team Sky's new leader Richie Porte after he finished the stage second to Lars Boom (Belkin).
"It was exciting, wasn't it?" said Team Sky's principal Dave Brailsford. "It might not have worked out for us but when you watched the way Nibali rode, if you're a bike fan, that was pretty impressive."
"It was big coup," Nibali said. "My team-mates even crashed in front of me, I was lucky to stay on my feet. I expected less in this stage because I thought Fabian Cancellara could do something and blow up the group, but maybe it wasn't his day.
"I have a good advantage on Alberto, but the road is still long to Paris."
Whether Nibali can hang on and win on the Champs Elysses on July 27 remains to be seen. (© Daily Telegraph, London)