Tour de France stage 10: Nibali wins brutal 10th stage

Contador abandons race following injury

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Vincenzo Nibali is back in control at the head of the Tour de France, emphatically demonstrating that he is the man to beat by conquering the final climb of La Planche des Belle Filles to win Monday's 10th stage and taking back the yellow jersey from Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Belisol).

Nibali and his Astana teammates had been happy to let Gallopin take the race lead ahead of stage 10, allowing the Frenchman to parade the maillot jaune in front of giddy holidaying roadside fans on Bastille Day. The Astana squad's generosity had also provided a much-needed "day off" on Sunday for them, having protected Nibali's race lead since stage 2.

But on stage 10, with the race's first official rest day to come on Tuesday, it was back to business as usual as Nibali put his teammates to work at the front of what was left of the bunch, and the Italian mopped up the last-surviving member of the day's early breakway - Katusha's Joaquim Rodriguez - with a little over a kilometre of the stage to go, stamping his authority on the race.

The tough job of holding the race lead all the way to Paris, however, has now been made considerably easier after the man who was arguably Nibali's main rival, two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador, crashed out on the descent of the day's third climb - the Col du Platzerwasel - mid-way through the 161.5-kilometre stage.

The stage finish at the top of La Planche des Belle Filles was last used by the Tour in 2012, when a then less-well-known Chris Froome took his first Tour stage win for Sky, leading home Cadel Evans and Sky's team leader Bradley Wiggins, who took the yellow jersey for the first time.

Just two short years later, none of them would be duking it out for the stage win; all three would no doubt have been watching at home on television instead. Evans - the 2011 Tour champion - didn't feature in BMC's line-up for this year's race, Sky didn't pick 2012 Tour winner Wiggins, either, while defending Tour champion Froome crashed out of the 2014 Tour on stage 5.

With the road to La Planche des Belles Filles now serving to spell the end for Contador at this year's race, Nibali is looking extremely comfortable at the head of affairs.

A roller-coaster ride

Almost from the gun, a seven-man group slipped away: Lieuwe Westra (Astana), Giovanni Visconti (Movistar), Markel Irizar (Trek) and, appropriately enough on Bastille Day, four Frenchman - Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), Amaël Moinard (Cofidis), Arnaud Gérard (Bretagne-Séché) and Ag2r's Christophe Riblon.

They were soon joined by Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Jan Barta (NetApp) and Cannondale's Peter Sagan - the latter keen to extend his lead in the green points jersey competition. After showing his breakaway companions a clean pair of heel on the descent of the second-category Col du Firstplan, the Slovakian did exactly that, taking the intermediate sprint in the valley between the Firstplan and the day's second climb - the first-category Petit Ballon.

Having got what he'd come for, Sagan was then content to slip back into survival mode and see out the rest of the race with the other sprinters towards the back of the race.

An impressive effort from Tony Martin - the stage winner the previous day - to drag his Omega Pharma-Quick Step teammate Michal Kwiatkowski up to the break would put the Polish rider in the "virtual yellow jersey', having started the day four minutes down on race leader Gallopin.

But there was further drama behind them on the descent of the first-category Col du Platzerwasel, where Tinkoff-Saxo leader Contador crashed heavily. Although he remounted to give chase, it soon became clear that his 2014 Tour campaign was over, and he slowed to a halt at the side of the road, clearly in a lot of pain. It would later be revealed that he had fractured his tibia.

The internet whispered, and soon shouted, that, with Contador out, it was guaranteed that there was again going to be a first-time winner of the Tour in 2014 - for the fifth year in a row.

With 20 kilometres of the stage to go, having single-handedly led the front group for so long in the hopes of putting Kwiatkowski into a race-winning position, Martin cracked completely, the efforts of two tough days clearly taking their toll.

Just a kilometre later, there were only two riders left in the lead - Kwiatkowski and Rodriguez - and just before the top of the penultimate climb of the Col des Chevrères, the elastic also snapped for Kwiatkowski, and the Spanish rider pushed on alone.

Behind them, Astana's Michele Scarponi was pushing hard, with team captain Nibali on his wheel, while just behind them Sky's Geraint Thomas was doing the same job for Richie Porte.

Race leader Gallopin had started the day with a 1:34 cushion over second-placed Nibali, but as the day's roller-coaster ride through the Vosges mountains - seven categorised climbs in all - began to take take its toll, Gallopin fought bravely to hang on to Nibali's coat tails, but was shed from the main group on the slopes of the Col des Chevrères.

Pushing ever harder on the slippery descent, Scarponi overcooked one of the bends, and crashed, leaving Nibali with only Jakob Fuglsang to ride for him. But only a few kilometres further down, Scarponi was back at the front with Fuglsang, bravely having ridden back into the service of Nibali.

Further down the descent still, Kwiatkowski found a second wind, and, with help from Visconti and Moinard, rejoined Rodriguez at the head of affairs. Kwiatkowski even pushed on alone as La Planche des Belles Filles approached, giving it everything, despite the danger of the damp roads.

Again, Rodriguez rejoined Kwiatkowski for the start of the final climb, and with five kilometres left to go, it finally looked as though it was game over for everyone else as Rodriguez again disappeared up the road, the stage win foremost in his mind, and within very real reach with the Nibali group still well over a minute behind.

Nibali maintained his poker face as a rather more pained-looking Scarponi kept pushing the pace, and with three kilometres to go, Nibali made his move following a glance over at him from Scarponi, as if to say, ‘No more.'

Within seconds, Nibali had passed the beleaguered Kwiatkowski, and Nibali soon had Rodriguez in his sights, sweeping past him with just over a kilometre left to race.

The Spaniard tried to hold on to the Italian's wheel, but with a gradient of 20 percent up to the finish line, Rodriguez's efforts were short-lived, and he was caught in the final few hundred metres by a flying Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) - the first of three Frenchmen in the top five - with American Tejay Van Garderen (BMC) sixth and Porte seventh.

Sky captain Porte now sits second overall, 2:23 down on Nibali, while Alejandro Valverde's third place on the stage also lifted him to third place overall, 2:47 behind Nibali.

Of some of the other big names, French hope Pierre Rolland (Europcar) lost over four minutes, while American favourite Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) - a crash victim himself on several occasions in the is race - lost more than 10 minutes on the stage.

This Tour is far from over - the first 10 days have proven that anything can happen - but Nibali will go into Tuesday's much-needed rest day in the driving seat, looking right now like the man most likely in Paris, especially with Contador now gone.

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