The Italian had already provided two emphatic demonstrations of very different skills in the first week of the race and concluded the opening phase with a third.
As the Astana leader contemplates a rest day with two stage victories and a second yellow jersey in his possession, is it time for the rest of us to reconsider his position in the pecking order of recent Grand Tour winners?
Few had Nibali marked down as a potential winner before the race rolled out of Leeds just over a week ago. His form in the pre-Tour fixtures in which he’d ridden against the men considered more likely to add another Tour title to their palmares – Chris Froome and Alberto Contador – had been indifferent. A dominant display at the Italian national road race championships should have placed him on the radar of those with their own ambitions for the French race, however.
Nibali wasted little time in deploying his excellent form at the Tour, producing a brilliant display as early as stage two. When Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) swaggered to the head of the bunch at the foot of Jenkin Road, Nibali was alert to the danger and stayed close. When the defending champion, Froome (Team Sky), attacked at the crest of the same hill, Nibali responded. And when his descending skills, perhaps unparalleled among his contemporaries, positioned him smartly for the closing kilometres, he timed his final assault to perfection, disappearing from sight while his rivals looked at each other.
Nibali’s second display of brilliance came just two days later. On the frequently cobbled road from Ypres to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, the Shark displayed a previously unexpected appetitive for the cobbles, gobbling up the surface and the men how had made a specialty of mastering it. The likes of Fabian Cancellara, three times a winner both at Flanders and Roubaix, and Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) winner of this year’s l’Enfer du Nord, were left trailing in his wake. Anyone looking for confirmation that this Tour might be Nibali’s perhaps needed no further confirmation.
Confirmation, however, was exactly what he delivered in the Vosges mountains. Contador proved unable to shake him on the climb into Gérardmer La Mauselaine on stage eight, and while the Spaniard’s departure from the race less than 48 hours later has certainly cast a shadow, Nibali has shown today that his biggest rival’s continued participation might have proven immaterial.
His confident departure from the support of his Astana team at the foot of the climb to La Planche des Belles Filles would have set alarm bells ringing in the minds of rival directeurs sportif. He wasted little time in riding away from a group of elite climbers that included Team Sky’s de facto leader, Richie Porte, and set about chasing down one of the finest climbers of this generation: world number one, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). ‘Purito’ offered more stubborn resistance, but the impromptu drag race between the two men as the road briefly levelled seemed only to inspire Nibali to greater effort. There was no disputing which of them would take the stage, and within another kilometre Rodriguez had cracked.
Is the Tour now Nibali’s to lose? In a more predictable race, the answer would unquestionably be yes, but in this spectacular edition, where disaster has lurked just around the corner for some of the biggest names in the sport, it is impossible to say. We must hope Nibali does not become the victim of outrageous fortune in the manner of Froome and Contador, if only that we might witness his time trialing skills on the penultimate stage. A performance against the clock to match his majestic descending, his mastery of the cobbles and his prowess on the climbs would surely mark him as one of the most complete riders of his generation, never mind this race.