PARIS - Vincenzo Nibali didn’t just have to beat his opposition at the Tour de France, he also had to overcome the elements and general chaos before being crowned in Paris.
The 2014 edition of the Grand Boucle had it all, except, thankfully, a doping scandal. From the crashes, dire weather, extreme heat, surprises, upsets and the clear supremacy of the experts in individual disciplines, it was an epic Tour. And there was even the return to prominence of the home nation, securing a podium spot for the first time in 17 years and in fact managing to get two riders on in the top three for the first time since 1984.
But all through it, there was one major constant: Nibali was by far the best. The 29-year-old Italian won four stages but he didn’t just rely on his strengths to beat the rest, he beat them in every domain. He won three mountain-top finishes and claimed a breakaway victory with a daring escape on a fast descent. But he also staggered his major rivals with a brilliant ride on the stage five cobbles and with a solid performance on the penultimate stage timetrial.
It might have been different had the two pre-race favourites made it to the end but the defending champion Chris Froome and twice former winner Alberto Contador both crashed out. Froome hit the deck on the fourth stage, injuring his left wrist and right hand. He tried gamely to soldier on wearing a splint on his left wrist but after hitting the deck twice more in stage five, before even reaching the perilous cobbles, he walked away. A day later, tests found that he had broken both his wrist and hand.
Contador had lost more than 2min 30sec to Nibali on the cobbles but was expected to start pulling back time in the mountains, yet on the first stage with a summit finish, he crashed on a fast descent, breaking his shinbone and having to leave the race. By then, several other star names in the peloton had crashed out as well, with neither sprint ace and former world champion Mark Cavendish nor 2010 champion Andy Schleck even reaching French shores — both withdrawing during the first three stages in Britain. Both would need to undergo operations, Cavendish on a separated shoulder and Schleck to an injured knee.
Already, Marcel Kittel had confirmed himself as the best sprinter in the world, a mantle he seemed to have taken from Cavendish the previous year. The burly German won three of the first four stages in sprint finishes and when he triumphed on the Champs Elysees for the second year in a row, he match his 2013 feat of winning four stages. Alexander Kristoff had provided some sort of opposition in winning two sprint stages but only ones with lumpy run-ins where Kittel couldn’t follow the fast pace over short climbs.
And on the Champs, where it mattered most, Norway’s Kristoff couldn’t match Kittel’s top speed. Yet despite their battles, for the third year in a row Peter Sagan won the sprinters’ green points jersey, thanks to his great consistency of finishing eight times in the top four, although without winning a stage. It was a great Tour for Germans with Andre Greipel winning a stage and Tony Martin taking two. Martin proved yet again that he is the best against the clock by winning the 54km timetrial my more than 1min 30sec.
The three-time world champion in that discipline also had a solo breakaway victory. Rafal Majka was the big revelation in the mountains, winning two stages and the king of the mountains polkadot jersey and suggesting he might be a contender in the future. The young Pole, who was sixth at May’s Giro d’Italia, seemed to be the only rider capable of competing with Nibali when the roads went up. For the host nation it was the Tour of resurrection as Jean-Christophe Peraud finished second and Thibaut Pinot third.
Romain Bardet came sixth and Pierre Roland was 11th in France’s best performance in decades. But it was a miserable Tour for the formerly all-conquering Sky team.
Once Froome crashed out their hopes turned to Australian Richie Porte, who failed miserably, finishing 23rd. It was, however, a history-making Tour for Ji Cheng. He may have finished 164th and last, at more than 50min from the next rider and over six hours behind Nibali — the biggest gap between first and last since 1954 — but he was both the first Chinese to start a Tour, and to finish it.