If Tour de France history means anything then Vincenzo Nibali will win the stage 20 time trial on Saturday and confirm his overall victory in this 101st edition of the world’s greatest bike race. Twice before, the Tour has staged long time trials on the rolling roads of the Dordogne between the cities of Bergerac and Périgueux. And both times the stage winner was the eventual Tour champion: Frenchman Jacques Anquetil in 1961 and Spaniard Miguel Induráin in 1994.
John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada
These were the situations in those two past Tours. Anquetil was already leading the Tour by more than five minutes with the Pyrénées behind him when he started stage 19 in Bergerac. It was a very long time trial: 74.5 kilometers. Clearly, Maître Jacques had no need to force the pace, but he rode at his usual high pace, finishing the stage in 1:42:32, at an average speed of 43.595 kilometers per hour (not bad on a regular road bike 53 years ago!). Luxembourger Charly Gaul was second, one second short of three minutes behind, with Italian Guido Carlesi in third, 3:37 slower. Those three also finished in that order on the final standings.
Thirty-three years later, the Périgueux to Bergerac time trial was much earlier in the race, on stage 9; but it was the stage that really won Induráin the 1994 Tour. This time, on similar hilly terrain but on a course 10 kilometers shorter than the one in 1961, the three-time defending champion—even more of a TT specialist than Anquetil—obliterated the field. Induráin covered the 64 kilometers in 1:15:58 (that’s 50.539 kilometers per hour), on a bike fitted with a rear disc and triathlon bars, but none of today’s sophisticated wind-tunnel-tested sophistication.
The Spanish phenomenon put the second-place Swiss, Tony Rominger, exactly two minutes behind him (though a sick Rominger would drop out of the Tour a few days later). More telling were the margins by which Induráin defeated some well-known time trialists on that hot, blustery day in the Dordogne. Britain’s Chris Boardman, who won the prologue time trial at the start of the Tour, came in fifth, 5:27 down. A youthful Lance Armstrong had the indignity of being caught and dropped by Induráin, placing 13th at 6:24. And the talented Brit, Sean Yates, who’d been in the yellow jersey a couple of days earlier, lost almost seven minutes in those 64 kilometers!
So what can we expect to happen in this Saturday’s stage 20—which is on a shorter course between Bergerac and Périgueux, although at 54.5 kilometers it’s long by today’s standards. It’s not an easy course, constantly climbing and descending through the region’s renowned hills and dales (somewhat like the terrain in Yorkshire that the Tour riders experienced three weeks ago). And added to the challenge will be a forecast northwest wind that will be an initial headwind, but a crosswind from the left for the majority of the distance. In other words, it’s a time trial for a hard man, not a pure time trialist, and it will favor the riders who are emerging the freshest from an extremely tiring Tour.
World time trial champ Tony Martin (who’s lying in 50th overall more than two hours behind Nibali) is thought to have the best chance of winning the stage, because the Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider has been able to ride at his own pace for the past week, conserving his energy for Saturday. But Martin will be riding in similar weather to Nibali and the other GC leaders, and they will know his time before they climb into the start house in Bergerac.
History tells us that a strong rider with incentive to finish in the top 10, in the top five or on the Paris podium will do extremely well in a time trial on the final weekend. Regarding American Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing, who would still be in contention for the podium if he hadn’t bonked on the first stage in the Pyrénées on Tuesday and lost four minutes, he could well finish in the top three in this time trial and finish fifth overall. He should easily make up the two minutes he needs on AG2R’s young Frenchman Romain Bardet—who’s much more of a pure climber and gradually faded in the Tour’s final week. Van Garderen also has the incentive of catching the two Dutchman, Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam of Belkin, who start respectively three and six minutes ahead of him in the time trial.
Starting behind the American is the trio shooting for the final two places on the podium: French upstarts Thibaut Pinot and Jean-Christophe Péraud, and Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde. They’re separated by only 15 seconds on overall time, but judging by the way they completed the last three climbing stages, it seems clear that FDJ’s Pinot is the strongest of the three right now. Pinot is more than a decent time trialist, having gone faster than his veteran French rival Jean-Christophe Péraud of AG2R in May’s Tour de Romandie; he also rode strongly against the clock in last month’s Tour de Suisse.
But Péraud is no pushover. He was faster than both Valverde and Pinot in the difficult time trial at the Tour of the Basque Country earlier this year, and he has displayed true grinta in uphill finishes in both the Alps and Pyrénées—a quality that adds to the things he has worked on since converting from a skinny mountain biker only four years ago: muscular strength and endurance. He may be 37, but Péraud is only in his fourth year as a road racer and has already signed on for two more seasons at AG2R.
As for Valverde, he has had the hardest time this past week. His efforts to put time on his rivals on the stages to Luchon and Hautacam were physically tiring and ultimately unsuccessful—especially the spectacular solo attack he made down the Tourmalet on Thursday. And though Valverde won the Spanish national TT title a week before the Tour, it looks like he won’t achieve his Tour podium dreams.
Nibali has ridden superbly throughout the Tour and he’s no slouch in time trials. In fact, in view of his vow to ride stage 20 “like a leader,” Team Astana’s yellow jersey will likely win his fifth stage of the race—and repeat those past TT victories of Anquetil and Induráin like a true champion.