Stage 15 of the 2014 Tour de France is the second longest on the course; only the 16th stage is longer. It begins what is sure to be a very physically taxing two days for the riders involved.
The long trek to Nimes comes after Rafal Majka's thrilling solo win in the 14th stage. The Polish Tinkoff-Saxo rider mustered a terrific late sprint to surge clear of a crowded break.
But perhaps the main story of the day was the continuation of Vincenzo Nibali's dominance of the yellow jersey leaderboard. He came in second behind Majka, but the Italian did enough to increase his overall advantage over Spaniard Alejandro Valverde Belmonte.
However, such late-breaking heroics could well be beyond the riders once they have navigated most of Stage 15's lengthy stretches.
Here's a breakdown of the main details of the route:
|Tallard to Nimes||222 km||Flat, downhill|
LeTour.com and VeloHuman.com
The inviting nature of the terrain is suited to the sprinters. The route is a test of power, specifically staying power. The riders who separate themselves from the peloton will be those who can maintain a quick pace.
However, the welcome sight of flat terrain, following two days in the Alps, could be marred by nefarious weather, according to Dane Cash of VeloHuman.com:
However, those hunting for success on Stage 15 can’t let the profile lull them into a false sense of security: the weather report is calling for rain, and crosswinds are always a possibility here. A number of roundabouts and a few turns near the finish could further complicate things.
So a seemingly serene route might have a few tricks in store.
Here's all the relevant TV and stream information:
|ITV4 / NBCSN||2 p.m. BST / 9 p.m. ET||ITV Player / NBC Sports' Live Extra|
ITV.com and NBC.com
Here's a prediction of how events will unfold on the way to Nimes:
Vincenzo Nibali will be motivated to defy his detractors with another day of assured riding. The Italian has recently been faced with questions regarding doping issues.
Specifically, Fotheringham feels previous winner Chris Froome was subjected to far more dubious looks and suspicious questioning during 2013's Tour:
Eight days from the finish, the Italian looks as likely a winner as Froome did after winning the stage on top of Mont Ventoux, and he has been every bit as dominant, winning three stages in the first 12 days, each calling for a slightly different skill set. Thus far, however, there has been none of the overt speculation in which, say, French television indulged themselves about Froome, particularly after the Ventoux finish.
That's certainly a strongly worded complaint from Fotheringham. However, all Nibali can realistically do in response is continue riding the way he has throughout this tour.
That means more of the same steady and savvy initial pace, combined with well-timed and blistering breaks. That's a formula that has created a healthy distance at the summit of the overall classification between Nibali and his closest rivals.
It's also a stylistic blend that could serve him well on the route to Nimes. Nibali may not possess the top-end sprinting skills of other riders, but he is certainly no slouch in the speed department.
Nibali can stay in touch with the early pace-setters. Then if he continues to pick his moments as well as he has so far, Nibali can break into an unassailable lead.
He certainly has enough motivation to win this stage and silence the doubters. As well as the doping talk, Nibali has also had to swat away those who believe he doesn't fully merit being this Tour's front-runner.
Stephen Farrand of CyclingNews.com has detailed how a rival team owner has managed to irritate Nibali:
Nibali also hit back at suggestion by Tinkoff-Saxo team owner Oleg Tinkov, that if Contador was still in the race, he and not Nibali, would be in yellow. Contador is now watching the Tour from his home in Madrid after crashing out and fracturing his tibia on stage 10 to La Planche des Belles Filles.
Expect an angered Nibali to vent his frustrations along the Stage 15 route.
Here's what the green and yellow jersey leaderboards look like ahead of Stage 15. Full classification information is available at LeTour.com:
|1||Vincenzo Nibali||Astana Pro Team||61:52:54|
|2||Alejandro Valverde Belmonte||Movistar Team||61:57:31||+ 4:37|
|3||Romain Bardet||AG2R La Mondiale||61:57:44||+ 4:50|
|4||Thibaut Pinot||FDJ.FR||61:58:00||+ 5:06|
|5||Tejay van Garderen||BMC Racing Team||61:58:43||+ 5:49|
Nibali's lead is certainly an imposing one. Valverde can't afford another miserable day like the one he endured on Stage 14. Sky Sports writer Matt Westby accused him of "wilting badly" toward the end of that race.
Consequently, the Movistar rider is now looking nervously over his shoulder. He will be particularly worried by the recent stellar riding of Frenchman Romain Bardet. He enjoyed a strong finish to Stage 14.
Things aren't quite as closely contested in the overall points standings.
|2||Bryan Coquard||Team Europcar||191|
|3||Alexander Kristoff||Team Katusha||172|
|4||Marcel Kittel||Team Giant-Shimano||167|
|5||Vincenzo Nibali||Astana Pro Team||134|
Peter Sagan still comfortably holds sway in the points classification. Meanwhile, consistent success has let Nibali creep into the mix.
Experiencing more success is what the current leader will be desperate for in Nimes. Nibali will be eager to quiet his critics.
He'll also know he can't get complacent, even with a commanding advantage in the yellow jersey standings.