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Richard Moore:

Downhill from here!

Nibali ready to chase Wiggins down

Richard Moore Posted 11th July 2012 view comments

Bradley Wiggins was asked, after Monday's time trial, whether the Tour de France was over.

It was a daft question, obviously, at the half-way point. "It ain't over till the fat lady sings," Wiggins responded, "and she ain't even entered the building."

And yet it would seem, after the first mountain stages and time trial, that Wiggins is the strongest, with his teammate, Chris Froome, the second strongest. If the race continues to follow the same pattern, both should finish on the podium.

Nibali: ready to exploit his strengths

Nibali: ready to exploit his strengths

That assumes rather a lot, however. And an interesting dimension is added to this year's race by Vincenzo Nibali, the Italian who sits fourth, and who has promised to make life difficult for Wiggins on the descents.

Nibali did that on Sunday, as they raced down the Col de la Croix, forcing Froome to slightly misjudge one corner. And that is the point: even if he can't get away, he can force the others to back off, or to make a mistake, or he could drag the defending champion, Cadel Evans, away. In short, Nibali's ability downhill, or his willingness to take risks, could influence the outcome of the race.

Often it can seem as though the overall contenders battle each other on the climbs only to call a truce on the way down. But if descending is Nibali's greatest strength, and he perceives it as a weakness in his rivals, why should he not seek to exploit it?

Richard Moore
Quotes of the week

It is unusual to be talking of the descents as potentially decisive. Often it can seem as though the overall contenders battle each other on the climbs only to call a truce on the way down. But if descending is Nibali's greatest strength, and he perceives it as a weakness in his rivals, why should he not seek to exploit it?

Mind the gap

On Tuesday's rest day, at the Team Sky hotel at Quincié-en-Beaujolais, Froome addressed the Nibali threat. "It's not something I fear so much, but it's something we need to keep an eye on," he said. "Obviously if somebody's going to take risks on a descent they can get a gap, but there are ways of limiting those gaps."

That means sticking close to Nibali's rear wheel, not letting any daylight open. But that can be risky. Although he has a reputation - along with Fabian Cancellara - as one of the best descenders in the sport, it is not clear how much that owes to skill, and how much to fearlessness, or recklessness.

Is Nibali as good as his reputation suggests? "I'd say so," said Froome. "I think he does take risks, but he does handle his bike very well. He doesn't often come off; he's got confidence in his bike-handling.

"There was a corner the other day where I was following him and I overshot it a bit and had to pull the brakes on. But as long as we're aware of his tactics I think we can control it."

Of course, Froome and Wiggins, in common with the other overall contenders, have recced the stages in the Alps and Pyrenees, but generally they pay more attention to the climbs, where Tours are traditionally won or lost.

Froome said he couldn't remember too much about the descents: "When you've got 30 corners, it's difficult to remember them all." Conversely, Mark Cavendish, for whom the mountain stages are about survival, has said in the past that he recced these stages mainly to learn about the descents - because this is where he can make up time.

For those of us keen to see an open, competitive race, the prospect of Nibali taking the race to Sky on some of the descents is a tantalising one.

"If Nibali wants to attack, good on him," said Michael Rogers, the most experienced of Wiggins' teammates. Rogers should have an important role to play in the mountains, not only in helping pace Wiggins and Froome, but also as a 'road captain' who makes tactical decisions.

Rogers was bullish. "If you have four or five guys from Sky riding full peg behind him," he said, "then I'm not sure it'll work. We've seen Nibali do that a lot of times and it's failed. But, saying that, he should attack. It might work. And all the time he's out there on his own he's expending energy..."

Twitter.com/richardmoore73

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