ARENBERG PORTE DU HAINAUT France (Reuters) - Yellow jersey holder Vincenzo Nibali smashed his rivals on the cobbles on Wednesday, but the Italian climber knows the Tour de France is still full of traps.
After five eventful stages, the Astana rider has a lead of more than two minutes on his Spanish rival Alberto Contador while defending champion Chris Froome of Britain crashed out of the race after suffering a third fall in two days.
Nibali, who won the Giro last year and was third on the Tour in 2012, is looking to complete his set of grand Tour titles as he prevailed in the Vuelta four years ago.
Only five riders, France’s Bernard Hinault and Jacques Anquetil, Belgian Eddy Merckx, Italian Felice Gimondi and Contador have won all three grand Tours.
It is an intriguing thought but despite taking early control on crash-littered day on the cobbles of northern France on Wednesday, Nibali knows several riders will be setting their sights on him with three quarters of the race to run.
Contador, along with Americans Andrew Talansky and Tejay van Garderen, Australian Richie Porte, Spain’s Alejandro Valverde and Dutchman Bauke Mollema are all within three minutes with three mountain ranges to come.
”I didn’t think I would distance Contador so much today,“ Nibali told reporters. ”But I’ll keep my feet on the ground. I want to remain quiet.
“It’s still a long way away with lots of mountains and everybody has seen today that crashes can happen.”
The next battlefield will likely be the Vosges region, with Monday’s 10th stage marked by the top guns as four first-category climbs are on the menu.
The peloton, however, were in awe of Nibali’s display on the cobbles, where the lightweights usually struggle.
“You’ve got to say that when you see the way Nibali rode, it was very impressive,” said Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford.
“It’s just unbelievable to ride away from Cancellara and Sagan on the cobbles.”
Nibali indeed left the Paris-Roubaix specialists behind to take third place at the end of the 152.5-km ride from Ypres, Belgium.
He benefited from his preparations with former Paris-Roubaix winner Peter van Petegem, who had also helped Contador get ready for the cobbled sectors of the 2011 Tour de France.
“He’s smart, he rode all season preserving himself for the Tour and he’s ready on D-day,” Trek sports director Alain Gallopin said.
“Two years ago we had a Tour for time trial specialists, last year a Tour for climbers. This year we’ll have a proper all-rounder winning it.”
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Martyn Herman