It’s the most cherished prize in cycling but, as the old saying goes, sometimes when you love something you have to set it free.
Vincenzo Nibali and his Astana team weighed things up, thought things out and decided to relinquish the grip on the yellow jersey the Italian had held since he won stage two of the Tour de France.
Don’t get him wrong; Nibali very much wants the jersey in Paris but, in handing the twin blessing and the burden of the golden tunic over to another team, Astana believes it will have an easier ride and thus be stronger when it counts.
“It is okay, it is okay,” said Nibali’s team-mate Jakob Fuglsang at the end of the long, lumpy race to Mulhouse. The French rider Tony Gallopin had gained enough time in a breakaway to take over at the top, but Fuglsang wasn’t worried.
“I think we said from the beginning that our intentions were not to keep it. To keep it all the way to Paris, okay, but if we could let it go and then take it back, that would be perfect for us. In the end, we said in the meeting this morning that we wouldn’t kill ourselves to keep the jersey.”
So things panned out. The team didn’t fight too hard when a large breakaway group got clear and, thanks to that, the move was able to stay out front until the end.
Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) was the day’s stage winner, but equally happy after the line was Gallopin (Lotto-Belisol), who finished in a chasing group two minutes 45 seconds behind. Crucially, this was five minutes and one second up on Nibali and the rest of the main bunch, thus handing him yellow by one minute 34 seconds.
The Frenchman was, quite understandably, ecstatic at the change in kit for Monday’s Bastille Day stage.
“I think the sensation of being the yellow jersey on July 14th will be amazing,” he said, referring to the country’s national holiday and the significance it holds for French riders. “I was dreaming about taking it. I started thinking it was possible after the stage of the pavé. Today Mark Sargeant gave me the opportunity. He allowed me to go for it and I wish to thank him for this.”
Nibali’s Astana team have had to defend the lead for one week and, as Fuglsang explained, giving it up will make a big difference, even for a short while.
“As you can see, on a day like today, the team spends quite some energy,” he said. “We have the jersey, we have to defend it or to control the race. That is the task that comes with the jersey and that costs energy, for sure.”
Dave Brailsford’s Sky team has been in the position of defending yellow for much of the past two Tours de France, and he said that he believed the Astana tactic was a wise one.
“In the same situation, yes,” he said, when asked if Sky would have done the same. “It is pretty straightforward, really. You don’t have to do the media tonight, you don’t have to stress everything and get ready for tomorrow.
“The difficult part of the day was the first thirty, forty kilometres, controlling those first two climbs for the jersey and defending that. It played out well for them. I think they did the right thing, just stayed calm and let the jersey know. I’m sure they’ll get it back.”
Gallopin also believes that his grip on the jersey is but a temporary one, but he will try to delay its relinquishing as long as possible.
Trouble is, the Planche des Belles Filles climb is not the ideal battleground for him.
“It is a very, very hard stage tomorrow,” he accepted, referring to the category one finish. “I think that I did it well. I did a good race. I was only two minutes back. So I will do the maximum to keep the yellow jersey. It will be a very, very hard stage tomorrow but I’ll see what happens.
“For now, I don’t want to think about tomorrow. I want to enjoy this today.”
With Nibali so close, and the finish so hard, Fuglsang said there was a possibility that his team leader could be back in the same jersey sooner rather than later.
“We’ll have to see,” he said, responding to a question about when the ideal time would be to reclaim the Maillot Jaune.
“It could even be as early as tomorrow, you never know. I think it is Gallopin who has the jersey now and we have to see how he climbs tomorrow. Otherwise maybe there is no other way than to take it back tomorrow.”
However Brailsford’s not convinced that the Frenchman will go easily. In fact, he believes it is possible that he could surprise many and remain atop the leaderboard.
“I think Tony is interesting,” he said. “He can climb well on smaller mountain stages. Who knows? He could well keep that jersey tomorrow.”
Longer-term, though, it’s certain that he’ll lose it at a later point. It remains to be seen if it will be Nibali who reclaims it again, or if Alberto Contador, Richie Porte or another rider will swoop to grab the spoils.