Vincenzo Nibali leads the pack during the eighth stage of the Tour de France on Saturday. Photo: Lionel Bonaventure

Gerardmer – Tour de France leader Vincenzo Nibali is expecting a quieter day in the saddle on Sunday as the ninth stage takes the peloton over 170km from Gerardmer to Mulhouse.

Saturday’s entry into the Vosges kicked off the hostilities as Alberto Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo team cranked up the pace on the three short climbs at the end of the stage.

The two-time former champion attacked on the final 1.8km third category ascent to the finish and clawed back three seconds on Astana leader Nibali, who vigilantly marked the Spaniard’s rear wheel throughout.

But after that hectic final 25km, Nibali is hoping a breakaway group will pull clear on Sunday’s hilly stage and encourage the likes of Contador to take a day off.

“It’s more of a stage for a breakaway rather than the overall classification riders,” said the 29-year-old Italian.

“I wouldn’t say nothing can happen, something can always happen, but after the final climb there’s a long way to the finish, so I don’t know. We’ll see during the stage.”

Saturday’s stage was the first time an escape group had been successful, although by the finish Frenchman Blel Kadri was the only one left not to have been swallowed up by a charging, yet diminished, peloton.

His was also the first stage win by a Frenchman on the Tour this year and was met with joyous scenes.

The French have been visible in every breakaway attempt so far and are very likely, buoyed by Kadri’s success, to be eager to join an escape group on Sunday.

Although it looks on paper like a stage for a breakaway, it is by no means an easy day in the saddle.

Six categorised climbs, including the 10.8km long first category Le Markstein (average gradient 5.4 percent), ensure that weary legs will likely struggle to keep up if any team decides to push the pace in the peloton.

There are more than 40km to the finish after the final climb but a similar stage last year saw Richie Porte lose touch with his team leader Chris Froome on one of the climbs, with Contador and his teammate Roman Kreuziger attacking.

Froome was shorn of teammates and Movistar took up the chase, preventing Porte from getting back in contact.

He lost more than 10 minutes that day.

But he proved in finishing fourth on Saturday’s stage and losing only 7sec to Contador and 4sec to Nibali that he is ready to step into the shoes of departed leader Froome.

“I’m happy with how that went. It’s not really my bread and butter that short, sharp (climb),” said Porte, who is now third overall at 1:58.

“It puts me in quite a good position. I’m a little bit behind those guys on that type of terrain but maybe on the longer climbs I’ll be a bit better.

“(Tinkoff-Saxo) are riding like Sky usually do. They were good (Saturday). It’s a little bit hard for Astana. They’ve had the jersey for almost a week now. We’ll just see how the next couple of days are.”

It’s more than likely, though, that the favourites won’t ignite the battle again on Sunday as Monday’s stage ahead of the rest day is going to be particularly tough.

It has seven categorised climbs including four first categories.

The final ascent to the finish at La Planche des Belles Filles provided a thrilling battle two years ago when Froome won his first Tour stage and Bradley Wiggins claimed the yellow jersey, going on to win the Tour that year.

The climb to Gerardmer on Saturday was an amuse-bouche, Monday’s finish will be the hors d’oeuvre and then the main course arrives with the Alps.

The favourites will need to remain vigilant these next two days to ensure they’re still hungry by then. – Sapa-AFP