We knew it would be a dramatic day at the Tour de France. But I don't think we saw this much drama coming.
Belkin's Lars Boom put on a Tour de Force at the front of a wet, nasty, miserable day of cycling across his favorite roads, while current maillot jaune Vincenzo Nibali rode like a master champion of old, showing no fear as the race battled slippery tarmac and fearsome cobblestones. Even more significantly, defending Champion Chris Froome of Sky abandoned the Tour today outside Lille following a pair of crashes on wet roads. Both crashes occurred before the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix fame began, as rain turned the smooth surfaces of northern France into slippery, dangerous tracks. Crashes happened left and right -- literally in one instance as riders slid out on opposite sides of a roundabout. When Froome went down the first time, he hopped right back up on his bike, but not so for his second crash. Then, riding in the middle of the pack, he found himself in another pileup and immediately looked like he was out. Froome held his right arm very gingerly and limped a bit, so it remains to be seen as of this writing whether he aggravated his wrist injury from the day before or sustained a new one.
The race broke up at the start of the cobbles as riders like BMC's Tejay van Garderen, Alejandro Valverde of Movistar and Garmin-Sharp's Andrew Talansky found themselves behind the front group containing Tinkoff-Saxo's favorite Alberto Contador, but the sheer number of dropped riders led to an effective chase as the cobbles got underway. Astana's Vincenzo Nibali, well-protected by his team, seemed the most comfortable of the GC contenders. opening up a 40-second gap on newly-presumptive favorite Contador on the Ennevelin secteur.
Next up, the Bersee secteur turned into a horrible nightmare for several riders. As Belkin aces Sep Vanmarcke and Lars Boom took over the front, Lars Bak of Lotto crashed head-over-heels into a ditch while rounding a turn, whereupon his teammate Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Garmin's Talansky went down. Nibali, still looking very strong, had to dodge falling teammates when the race returned to the tarmac. The Shark was up to a minute on Contador, but running out of help. Even the early breakaway, still just up the road, suffered some mishaps on a roundabout.
As the bunched cobbles secteurs got underway, Talansky was in a small second group ahead of Contador while Boom paced the front, dogged by Sagan. The gap to Contador grew to nearly two minutes, while Geraint Thomas, now lacking Froome, paced Richie Porte up to Talansky, desperate to close in on Nibali. On the endless Wandignies secteur, Nibali and Lieuwe Westra ditched their famous cobbles rivals to go on alone with a very strong Boom. Sagan fell back to Fabian Cancellara, and found nobody interested in towing him back to the front. Nibali himself powered the leaders until the final secteur, when Boom said his final farewell to all challengers, soloing home for the stage win.
Ultimately, Nibali put two minutes into Porte, and closer to three minutes into Contador. Nibali rode with a confidence rarely seen in GC riders today, and more common in past eras where the greats of the mountains were sometimes also the greats on the cobbles. Nibali may or may not be the strongest rider physically -- there are more than two weeks remaining to make that determination -- but he has the mental strength of an Anquetil or Hinault.
As for Boom, this is the race he always seemed ready to win. The Dutch ace and former World Champion of cyclocross has been a regular contender in Paris-Roubaix, but unable to finish off the race at that extreme distance. Today, he was the strongest rider throughout the final hour, and handled his bike with cobbled veteran aplomb. This was rightly his day.
- Lars Boom, Belkin
- Jakob Fuglsang, Astana, at 0.20
- Vincenzo Nibali, Astana, s.t.
- Peter Sagan, Cannondale, at 1.01
- Fabian Cancellara, Trek Factory Racing, s.t.
- Jens Keukeleire, at 1.
- Michael Kwiatkowski, OPQS
- Lieuwe Westra, Astana
- Matteo Trentin, OPQS
- Cyril Lemoine, AG2R
- Fuglsang, at 0.02
- Sagan, at 0.44
- Kwiatkowski, at 0.50
- Cancellara, at 1.17
- Jurgen Van DenBroeck, Lotto, at 1.45
- Tony Gallopin, Lotto, s.t.
- Ritchie Porte, Sky, at 1.54
- Andrew Talansky, Garmin-Sharp, at 2.05
- Alejandro Valverde, Movistar, at 2.11