The 2014 Tour de France was turned on its head once again Monday after Alberto Contador crashed on the rain-slicked descent of the day’s second-rated climb and was forced to abandon the race.
Though he remounted the bike after the crash and tried to soldier on, he eventually succumbed and discovered later at the hospital that he had fractured his tibia.
The two-time Tour champ’s departure comes just five days after Chris Froome went down on wet roads and was also forced to quit. Contador and Froome took the start line on July 5 as the favorites, though Vincenzo Nibali and his team Astana commandeered the race lead in Stage 2. Contador and Froome were the only two racers in this year’s Tour who had previously won the event, and their departures ensure that the race will have a new champion.
After last Wednesday’s treacherous cobbled stage, there was much handwringing over whether or not the pavé has a rightful place in the Tour. Critics argued that the rough roads were too dangerous for the high speeds and nervous racing of the Tour and that they put the lightweight GC contenders at too much risk.
The whole discussion misses the point, especially in light of Contador’s crash. On Stage 5, it wasn’t the cobbles that caused the chaos, but the rain: Froome, Valverde, and Van Garderen all went down on rain-soaked smooth pavement.
Similarly, the wet roads and heavy rain surely contributed to bringing Contador down. In the same way that no one is likely to argue that the race should skip the mountains in the name of rider safety, there shouldn’t even be a conversation about whether cobbles are appropriate.
Tour director Christian Prudhomme put it best after Froome’s unfortunate crash. He said he was sad to see the Brit leave the race, but maintained that the winner of the Tour de France must be a complete rider.
A bit of luck helps, too.
And as always, one rider’s misfortune is another’s advantage. With both Froome and Contador gone, Nibali, who was already looking ready for the fight, now has to be considered the top contender to win the Tour de France. The Italian was expected to grapple with Contador on today’s final climb to La Planche des Belles Filles, but with the Spaniard out, Nibali rode away with the race to regain the yellow jersey and consolidate his lead. He now sits two minutes and 23 seconds ahead.
Other, lesser favorites also benefited, including American Tejay Van Garderen, Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, Omega Pharma’s up-and-comer Michael Kwiatowski, Dutchman Bauke Mollema, and Belgium’s Jurgen Van Den Broeck. All of those racers moved up the standings.
After Nibali, Team Sky is arguably the biggest beneficiary of Contador’s departure. When Chris Froome went out of the race, many questioned whether Sky had made a mistake leaving home Bradley Wiggins.
However the team rallied around super-domestique Richie Porte, and the Aussie has ridden consistently to silence the doubters and move to second overall on GC. Besides, given how harsh the race has been to past Tour winners, Wiggins may be lucky to be sitting comfortably at home.
With the two biggest favorites out, it’s easy to write this race off as over. And it’s true that Nibali now seems a shoo-in for the win. But given the tumult of the first 10 days of racing, the only thing that seems certain about this Tour is that nothing is certain.