BESANCON, France – With defending champion Chris Froome and two-time winner Alberto Contador out of the race, the path is wide open for Vincenzo Nibali to become the first Italian to win the Tour de France since the late Marco Pantani in 1998.
The French have waited even longer for a champion – the last was Bernard Hinault way back in 1985 – but with three riders in the top six places, hopes are growing of at least a first podium place since climber Richard Virenque finished second in 1997.
After Tuesday’s rest day, the race resumes with Stage 11 Wednesday, followed by arduous mountain stages Friday and Saturday which will reveal the genuine contenders.
These are where Nibali’s climbing skills could set him apart, and give him a chance to fully stamp his authority on the race.
There are five days of hard climbing ahead, starting with Friday’s 122.4-mile trek from Saint-Etienne to Chamrousse, which ends with a huge ascent of 11.2 miles.
As for Nibali’s rivals, Contador broke his shin in a violent fall in Monday’s 10th stage and Froome pulled out on stage 5 with a broken wrist.
“I’m not happy about what happened to Alberto and Chris,” the 29-year-old Nibali said. “The climbs would have been better and more spectacular for everyone.”
Nibali, who won the Spanish Vuelta in 2010 and the Giro d’Italia in 2013, is 2 minutes, 23 seconds ahead of Australian Richie Porte and 2:47 clear of Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, who won the Vuelta five years ago.
Three Frenchmen are within four minutes of Nibali – Romain Bardet, Tony Gallopin and Thibaut Pinot. None has come close to a podium place on a Grand Tour, although the 23-year-old Bardet and the 24-year-old Pinot have strong climbing skills.
“We’ve got to stay calm and study the situation,” Nibali said. “The danger can come from anywhere.”
Porte rode as a key support rider for Froome last year on the Sky team, but now has free reign to attack.
“Porte goes well in the climbs, he goes well in time trials, you have to keep a good distance on him,” Nibali said. “You have to watch Valverde, he can attack at any time.”
The 34-year-old Valverde was handed a two-year suspension in 2010 for his involvement in the Operation Puerto doping plot, which involved dozens of riders over secretly stored blood bags.
Like Nibali, Pantani was a courageous cyclist who loved to attack in the tough climbs.
Pantani was found dead in a hotel room on Valentine’s Day in 2004 and a coroner ruled he died from cocaine poisoning.
Nibali has one of Pantini’s yellow jerseys at home, a gift from Pantini’s mother to mark the 10th anniversary of his death.
“It would be a great honour to follow on from him,” said Nibali.
Friday’s stage will also be special for Nibali because it marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of two-time Tour champion Gino Bartali, who died in 2000 at the age of 85.
“As an Italian, it’s a huge privilege to be asked about Bartali. I grew up watching documentaries on the big riders, the big wins of (Felice) Gimondi, Bartali and (Fausto) Coppi,” Nibali said. “They’re all in the encyclopedia of cycling. There are others like Hinault, too. They’ve written the history of cycling.”
The last French heyday came in the 1980s when Hinault, a five-time champion, competed against Laurent Fignon, who won in ‘83 and ‘84.
Wednesday’s stage is a 187.5-kilometer (116.3-mile) route in eastern France from Besancon to Oyonnax and features four small climbs.
Veteran Fabian Cancellara won’t be among the starters.
The 33-year-old Swiss cyclist has pulled out to focus on the Road World Championships in Ponferrada, Spain, from Sept. 21-28.
Cancellara withdrew prior to the start of the 11th Tour stage in 2012.