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Stage 17 was what many viewed as the most critical stage of the entire Tour. Indeed, it represented the final opportunity for any of Bradley Wiggins’ main rivals to attack the maillot jaune prior to the final 2 flat stages and time trial from Friday to Sunday. The course itself was a relatively short 143.5km ride from Bagneres-de-Luchon to Peyragudes, encompassing 3 high Pyrenean cols, 2 Category 1 climbs and a monstrous HC climb up the Port de Bales. The final climb culminated in a mountain top finish although the final kilometre was flat, given some respite from the previous 15km up a steep gradient. There were no withdrawals from Stage 16 as 153 riders started the stage after the commissaires took pity on Belgian lantern rouge Jan Ghyselinck, who missed the cut off time by 4 seconds on Stage 16 but was allowed to start the stage today. Both the yellow jersey and King of the Mountains crown were up for grabs today, with the polka dot winner presumably decided in the Haute-Pyrenees. As race director Prudhomme dropped the flag after rolling out of the neutral zone, both Albert Timmer (NED, Argos-Shimano) and Levi Leipheimer (USA, Omega Pharma-Quick Step) sought to go on the early attack.
Both were pulled back while Michael Albasini and Jens Voigt tried to steal away from the peloton. With the slopes of the Col de Mente reached and the peloton reasonably intact, the sprinters of the ilk of Tyler Farrar and Mark Cavendish were being dropped by the peloton as the mist and the Pyrenean rain closed in. On the early slopes of the Col de Mente, a group involving Pierre Rolland (FRA, Europcar), Denis Menchov (RUS, Katusha), Juan Jose Cobo (SPA, Movistar) among others attempted to fracture the peloton. Sky and Liquigas were having none of it, Wiggins sitting 4th wheel with Vincenzo Nibali in close proximity. Both Fredrik Kessiakoff (SWE, Astana) and Thomas Voeckler (FRA, Europcar) had made it in to the break, the polka dot jersey contenders attempting to fight it out for King of the Mountain points. Voeckler took the maximum of 10, with his Swedish counterpart over in second. The descent was treacherous, the peloton no more than 2 minutes behind. On the dangerous descent Vincenzo Nibali attacked, the Liquigas rider attempting to put distance between himself and Wiggins. The Italian soon joined the breakaway but on the flat it became clear that the peloton was hunting him down. As a result, the Liquigas team leader shook hands with Alejandro Valverde (SPA, Movistar), wished him good luck and sat up to wait for Wiggins and co. Haimar Zubeldia had been dropped on the previous climb, the GC Top 10 rider clearly struggling although he caught up with little difficult as the paced ease and the gap grew to the breakaway, consisting of Kessiakoff, Voeckler, Valverde as well as Rui Costa (POR, Movistar), Sandy Casar (FRA, FDJ), Egoi Martinez (SPA, Euskaltel-Euskadi), Jean Christophe Peraud (FRA, Ag2r-La Mondiale), with a further chase group behind who would soon catch the leading bunch. Involved in the second group were Laurens Ten Dam (NED, Rabobank), Johnny Hoogerland (NED, Vacansoleil-DCM), Biel Kadri (FRA, Ag2r-La Mondiale), Alexandre Vinokourov (KAZ, Astana), Gorka Izaquirre and Jorge Azanza (SPA, Euskaltel-Euskadi), Levi Leipheimer (USA, Omega Pharma- Quick Step), Simone Stortoni (ITA, Lampre) and Chris Anker Sorensen (DEN, Saxobank).
With the Category 2 summit upcoming, Voeckler and Kessiakoff took off again, again the Frenchman taking control and picking up a further 5 points. The third climb of the Cote de Burs soon followed, again Voeckler picking up 2 points to Kessiakoff’s one. Back in the peloton, the gap had increased to 2’33’’. While Liquigas has on the front, Mark Cavendish clipped teammate Richie Porte in the feeding zone, the Australian needing a new bike before chasing hard back to the peloton before the HC climb. The Port de Bales was a 15km long climb with an average gradient of 7.6%. Nibali’s teammates cranked up the pace in the peloton as the breakaway fractured to pieces. Rui Costa remained 2’00’’ ahead up front as teammate Valverde bridged the gap and attacked. Back in the peloton, riders kept dropping away as Christian Knees pulled off and left Wiggins with 4 teammates, Boasson-Hagen surprisingly included, the Norwegian helping his team leader well. Valverde pulled clear over the top of the climb, harassed by boos from the cycling fans on the road after the Spaniard made a return from a 2 year drug suspension from which he had remained shockingly unrepentant. Voeckler once again beat Kessiakoff to the points, his victory in the Mountains classification secure. None the less, the descent saw the peloton hoover up all but Valverde, the Spaniard going for victory alone as the main GC contenders, Zubeldia aside, crossed the Port de Bales together. One final climb stood between Wiggins closing in on the title.
On the final climb to Peyragudes Valverde’s lead remained around 2’30’’. Maxime Monfort, Andreas Kloden, Michele Scarponi and Michael Rogers were all distanced by work done by Ivan Basso on the front for Vincenzo Nibali. With 8km to go, Valverde held a 1’47’’ lead before the first attack began. Jelle Vanendert had moved ahead for teammate Van den Broeck who jumped, followed by Thibaut Pinot and Pierre Rolland. Froome and Wiggins cleverly sat in Nibali’s wheel as the Italian brought the Team Sky riders up to their rivals. However, the pace proved too much for Basso, Nicolas Roche and Denis Menchov who are fell back, along with Cadel Evans, leaving a very small elite group at the front. Thibaut Pinot launched an assault, matched by Van den Broeck, Wiggins and Froome as everyone was clearly suffering. Bradley Wiggins had had enough, putting his foot down as Van Garderen, Rolland and shockingly Nibali all melted away to leave only Pinot, Van den Broeck and his teammate. Eventually, the Belgian and French rider fell away, leaving only the two British riders proving themselves worthy of the place as the strongest two riders in the world of road race cycling. Froome looked like he could go clear and chase Valverde down but instead egged Wiggins to Tour glory. In the end, the Team Sky riders finished 19’’ behind Valverde, Pinot a further 3 seconds back after a brilliant ride. Van den Broeck and Rolland finished a further 4 seconds down with Nibali losing 18 seconds on his 2 main rivals. For Valverde, perhaps a maligned redemption after 2 years in the wilderness? For Wiggins, glory now must surely await in Paris barring incident or accident in the final 3 stages.
Stage 18 Preview-
Stage 18 is one of the longest in the Tour, the second longest in fact from Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde, finally exiting the Pyrenees after the last mountain stage of the Tour so far. After struggling so gamely through the tougher stages, this is another opportunity for the sprint teams to shine and try and improve their tally in the points classification. The lengthy 222km ride is the last before the individual time trial on Saturday and the ride in to the Champs Elysees on Sunday. Although out of the mountains, there are still 4 category climbs on this stage, incorporating a Category 3 on the Cote-de-Saint-Georges and 3 Category 4’s, including a tricky effort of the Cote de Lissac-sur-Couze a mere 10km from the end. Although Mark Cavendish will likely compete for victory in Paris, this stage may be one of recuperation for the Manx Missile. Therefore, the sure fire tip has to be Andre Greipel, looking for his 4th stage victory in 2012, although I expect Tyler Farrar to be much higher up in this fight for glory than on previous stages.