Tour takes wild turns in early going

Weather, cobbles, crashes conspire to eliminate favorites, open door for others

Updated: July 15, 2014, 2:07 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

Vincenzo NibaliJeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty ImagesVincenzo Nibali was a man apart in the mountains in Stage 10 and is in control of a wild Tour de France.
Everyone's Tour de France bracket has been busted.

The toll of the first 10 days was stark: 18 riders out, 180 still upright. Three broken legs. The most decorated sprinter in race history, Mark Cavendish, lying crumpled against the barricades on opening day. Defending champion Chris Froome and past winner Alberto Contador, forced to dismount and step gingerly into team cars, grimacing in the fog.

Jittery, fresh legs, lousy weather and the wild card thrown down in the form of a stage partially paved with cobblestones (or, in other years, a team time trial) all are known hazards for riders of stature. The curtain-raising stretch of the Tour often leaves a sizable dent in numbers and expectations, but this constitutes unusual wreckage even by historical standards.

Yet the racing has been sensational, and that isn't a coincidence. Grand tours can have an inevitable, forced-march quality to them. This one does not, despite the early dominance of Italy's Vincenzo Nibali.

Nibali not only handled but seemed to relish his time on the cobbles, and put his stamp on the race by riding to win Monday's uphill finish in the Vosges -- those pesky mountains before the mountains before the mountains -- that loomed as a trap as soon as the 2014 route was unveiled.

Nibali has surely made some of his own luck, but also benefited from the random whims of the bike universe. In a race in which several team leaders have lost key helpers, Nibali's Astana teammate Michele Scarponi lost traction Monday on a descent and spectacularly somersaulted over hay bales and into spectators, only to dust himself off and recover to pace Nibali in the late going.

The Italian nicknamed "the Shark" has won two other three-week tests, the Giro d'Italia (2013) and the Vuelta a Espana (2010) and finished third in the 2012 Tour. However, aspiring to keep the overall leader's yellow jersey from now until Paris pushes Nibali into a much hotter seat than the one he occupied entering the race, when he was a footnote behind Froome and Contador.

It will take personal growth on the road and continued good fortune for Nibali to prevail in the vacuum left by those absences. The same goes for the men who suddenly find themselves promoted, such as Richie Porte, who clipped into Froome's role for Team Sky and is now second overall.

Resilience will be the elusive watchword for the two young American hopefuls who saw their paths fork in the past few days.

BMC's Tejay van Garderen, who has hit the deck several times, lost the services of climber Darwin Atapuma in one of those crashes and struggled for a couple of days to keep his podium chances intact. Still, van Garderen managed to assert himself again with a strong ride Monday and stands seventh, roughly four minutes back of Nibali.

Garmin's Andrew Talansky couldn't bounce back from his multiple tumbles and dropped to almost 15 minutes behind. He'll have to shift his goal to a stage win and further seasoning in his second Tour.

The Alps -- where van Garderen rode to a memorable near-win on the double ascent of Alpe d'Huez last year -- loom next. The mountaintop finish at Chamrousse appears to be by far the most decisive of the three days there should the race revert to traditional form, but that seems like an alien notion at the moment. 

There have been other relatively open Tour fields in recent years, but the last time two such heavy favorites went out of the same race this early -- Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso in 2006 -- it was a doping imbroglio that booted them before the start rather than slippery roads en route to Paris.

Time for all the dark horses to show they can ride themselves into the spotlight, which they fervently hope will come from an unobscured sun.

The Alps and Pyrenees, dramatic as they are, pose familiar challenges. The mental endurance required to survive and prosper over the next two weeks is a new frontier for many.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.

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