The first half of the 2014 Tour de France has been filled with drama, bad weather conditions, crashes and plenty of attacking cycling, but as the peloton prepares for the stages in the Alps, the outlook for the second half is gloomy.
Alberto Contador joined Chris Froome on the list of heavy favourites forced to abandon the race prematurely, via road.cc, leaving the 2014 Tour with one overwhelming favourite—Vincenzo Nibali.
The Italian blew his competition out of the water on his way to La Planche des Belles Filles on Monday, and he was greatly aided by the peloton's complete lack of reaction to his jump.
Richie Porte was the only rider to try to follow the Astana man, and he told ITV4 how frustrated he was at having to battle the Italian on his own, via his team's website:
I was the only one who responded when Nibali went, but I guess that's racing. I felt good today but it's not great to be towing everybody to the line. If Vincenzo goes I guess you have to respond. He's got enough time already so I didn't really want him to get any more.
The Australian is Nibali's closest rival on the overall leaderboard, chasing by almost two-and-a-half minutes. Without Froome and Contador there to challenge Nibali, the rest of the pack is seemingly focused on securing a podium place, essentially giving the man in the yellow jersey a free pass every time he launches an attack.
Let's have a look at the remaining challengers to Nibali and their chances of pulling off a monumental upset.
Porte and Alejandro Valverde
Gap: Inside Three Minutes
Porte has assumed the role as the leading rider of Team Sky following the crash of Froome, but the Australian is a career helper. A gifted climber, Porte has never been tasked with finishing a stage in a major tour. He's excellent as a pacemaker and reacting to attacks but untested when forced to pressure the riders around him.
Alejandro Valverde was one of the more exciting single-stage riders early in his career but has since transformed himself into a capable contender for the general classification in big tours. He's a former winner of the Vuelta a Espana and the Criterium du Dauphine, two stage races that feature plenty of climbing.
Both have some experience leading their teams outside of the Tour de France (Porte won last year's Paris-Nice), but the biggest stage race in the world is a completely different animal.
The Australian is a gifted time trialist, but the 2014 Tour de France only features one time trial, immediately after the stages in the Pyrenees. Valverde has the bulk to be a solid time trialist, but he's more likely to lose time on Nibali than gain.
Both riders will likely target a spot on the final podium over a direct challenge on Nibali, but they are still within striking distance of the Italian. If Porte can deal with the pressure of leading a team, he has the best chance of anyone at taking down Nibali.
Romain Bardet, Tony Gallopin and Tejay van Garderen
Gap: Three-Four Minutes
Tony Gallopin relinquished his yellow jersey on Monday, struggling mightily on the slopes towards La Planche des Belles Filles. His time in the top 10 should come to an end during the first stage in the high mountains of the Alps.
Romain Bardet has been one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2014 Tour de France, and his performances on Bastille Day were impressive. But like Tejay van Garderen, he lacks the experience to truly shine in a major stage race this early in his career.
Both will be aiming for solid finishes in this year's Tour and build from there, with Bardet currently riding in the white jersey. Van Garderen has been steadily climbing in the general classification, but as reported by Velonews' Matthew Beaudin, his primary concern isn't Nibali:
Neither of these two riders will feel comfortable going after Nibali when he attacks, running the risk of losing his position on the overall leaderboard.
Rui Costa and Bauke Mollema
Gap: Four Minutes
The two men who showed their form in the Tour de Suisse love climbing, and they're not afraid to show their face at the front of the race. Of all the top 10 riders, they are perhaps the only two willing to counter anyone, including Nibali, and they'll be aiming for the Alps and Pyrenees to move up in the standings.
But already trailing Nibali by four minutes, the gap appears to be too wide for either to truly challenge the Italian. This year's Tour de Suisse wasn't an easy one, and both riders had their struggles during the first half of the Tour de France.
Rui Costa in particular seemed to have difficulties as soon as the top riders pushed the tempo, although he should feel right at home in the Pyrenees. Bauke Mollema has little to lose and, supported by the talented Belkin team, could be responsible for some carnage in the second part of this year's Tour.
But at the end of the day, neither will worry Nibali all that much. The current leader isn't the most explosive of the bunch, but his stamina in the high mountains is beyond impressive.
Team Astana have done a phenomenal job protecting him so far, and barring mechanical issues or a fatal crash of his own, Nibali is a safe bet to be wearing the yellow jersey when the peloton arrives in Paris.
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