Heading into the second rest day of the 2014 Tour de France, this year's edition of cycling's biggest race appears to be all but over. Vincenzo Nibali has dominated the peloton (or what's left of it) and holds a massive lead over Alejandro Valverde heading into the Pyrenees, where everyone is expecting more of the same.
That includes Valverde himself, per BBC Sport's Peter Scrivener:
"Vincenzo Nibali is the strongest but there's nothing in it between the rest of us."
The Italian race leader comfortably dispatched of his challengers in the Vosges and almost embarrassed the pack in the Alps, fortifying his yellow jersey to the point where he now holds a lead bigger than four-and-a-half minutes.
Yet throughout the event, fans and pundits have continued asking the same question: What if Alberto Contador and Chris Froome were still here?
It's a fair question. Both are previous winners of the Tour de France and were seen as favourites to win the 2014 edition. And while Froome had few chances to show his form, Contador kept things very close with Nibali during the Tour's first uphill finish.
The "what ifs" will linger, but the question should be asked strictly from an entertainment point of view. Yes, the 2014 Tour de France would be much more exciting if the two were still riding. Even Nibali agrees with that, as reported by Cycling Weekly's Gregor Brown:
I’m not happy with what’s happened to Alberto and Chris, for sure, without them in these climbs…It would’ve been better and a great show for everyone. I’m strong, though, you saw that [at La Planche des Belles Filles]. I’m racing here to win. I’m really sorry for what happened to Alberto, and what happened to Chris. We don’t have the past winners here, but we still have quite a few big name riders.
Tactically, the peloton has become a mess. Team Sky isn't used to riding for Richie Porte, who failed to build on a solid first week. Tinkoff-Saxo has been unwilling to duke it out with Astana, knowing full well there's no point—Contador is out.
But that shouldn't take anything away from Nibali. Like the Italian said, he's still racing against great competition, including Valverde. Channel 4 News' Fabrizio Viani isn't wrong when he says avoiding crashes is part of the game:
No point saying if Froome or Contador had been there... Part of the game is you have to be in it to win it, no crashes, no illness #TDF— Fabrizio Viani (@fabrizioviani) July 18, 2014
Nibali's form in this Tour has been incredible, and the race leader is yet to show any signs of weakness. He comfortably kept pace with Contador when the latter exploded for the first time, and his showing in this Tour has been flat-out dominant, per Sky Sports' Orla Chennaoui:
Remember question marks over Nibali's lead in absence of Froome and Contador? Doing everything he can to erase them from storyboard now #TdF— Orla Chennaoui (@SkyOrla) July 18, 2014
Fans shouldn't forget Nibali already held a significant lead over Contador when the Spaniard exited the race, courtesy of a dominant showing on the cobblestones in Stage 5.
The stage to Arenberg Porte de Hainaut was Nibali's way of showing his competitors his legs felt great. To launch such an attack in dreadful weather conditions on a treacherous course takes guts, and it made for one hell of a statement.
And when Contador answered on the climb to Gerardmer, Nibali was right there with the two-time winner every step of the way. The explosive finale was tailor-made for the for the diminutive Contador, but he just couldn't get rid of an in-form Nibali.
The Astana leader has been sensational in the 2014 Tour de France, regardless of the opposition. It's not his fault both Contador and Froome couldn't stay upright. Nor is it his fault not a single rider in the peloton is willing to follow him any time he decides to break for the finish.
Barring accidents, Nibali is going to win his very first Tour de France this year, and history should remember just that. The Italian was dominant from start to finish, decimated the competition on the cobbles and didn't show a single moment of weakness.
It's a shame fans didn't get to see an epic battle between three top riders in the Alps and Pyrenees, but it shouldn't be held against the sole survivor of that trio. Nibali has done everything right so far during the 2014 Tour de France, and when he crosses the finish line in Paris, he should be applauded for just that.