Stage 17: Bagneres-de-Luchon to Peyragudes. 143.5km
Today was the last chance for anyone hoping to get onto the podium to do something audacious and for one brief and shining moment, it looked like Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) was up to the challenge. A big breakaway went clear almost from the off, including Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and the top two men in the mountains classification, Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana). Under the cover of mist, Nibali bridged the gap during the descent from the first climb, the Cat 1 Col de Mente. After a quick word by Valverde, Nibali sat up after taking about 30 seconds on the yellow jersey group, as the break would never be successful if he stayed. After his absorption back in the group, he never really posed a threat again in the stage.
Most of the stage’s excitement came from Voeckler’s cat-and-mouse game with Kessiakoff for the KoM points. Voeckler played the Swede to perfection, sitting on his wheel and then jumping out from behind him to sprint to the summit over each climb except the final one, giving him enough of a lead in the points to secure the jersey in Paris.
Meanwhile, back in the maillot jaune group, Liquigas took to the front from the start of the second of the five climbs, driving hard … but for what? To give the Sky domestiques a rest, it would seem, as Nibali was not able to capitalise on the fact that his teammates, particularly Dominik Nerz and Ivan Basso on the Port de Bales, dropped just about everyone out of that group except Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins and Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol) by the summit. Up ahead, Valverde had broken free from the breakaway group and took to the road by himself about 3.5km from the Port de Bales summit and 15km from the finish. It was nip-and-tuck for the last 3km as Valverde was clearly on the rivet and Froome and Wiggins dropped the rest of the riders to try to catch him. He held out, however, for his fourth career stage at the Tour.
VeloVoices rider of the day
I’ve had my problems with the way he rationalised his doping ban, but Alejandro Valverde is back in the peloton and free to ride and today was one of the reasons why it was such a disappointment that he doped in the first place. Valverde is an exciting, gutsy rider when he takes his chances and he proved that again today with his solo win on one of the hardest stages in this year’s Tour. The fact that he was clearly coming to the end of his strength, yet fought on while being chased by Froome and Wiggins, made the end of this stage a very exciting – and for Sky, slightly controversial – one.
Once again, the biggest talking point on Twitter and the after-race commentaries was the yin and yang of Froome and Wiggins. Once this pair had dropped everyone else and started chasing Valverde, it was unclear as to which of the Sky riders was actually vying for the stage win. Wiggins had dropped anyone who could have remotely been a threat to the yellow jersey, so it seemed that he wanted to win a mountain stage to silence the critics who said he wouldn’t have been able to hang on in the mountains without such a strong team. Yet it was clear almost immediately that Froome was stronger, slowing down every few metres to look back (in a Frandy-like move!) and shout encouragement to Wiggins to stay on his wheel. At 3km from the finish, even if Froome had ridden away, there would have been only the very slightest danger for Wiggins (i.e. a mechanical or a fall) so it was a mystery as to why Wiggins didn’t tell Froome to race away and take the stage. In the end, they came over the line together, just 19 seconds behind Valverde. If Froome had been set free in the last kilometre, he would almost surely have caught and passed him.
Click here to see ITV’s post-stage interview with Chris Froome
It was apparent yesterday that no one from the GC was strong enough to challenge the yellow jersey so once Liquigas failed to do anything on the Port de Bales, everyone in the audience figured it was all over. Sky let Liquigas do all the work, riding in their wheels, saving precious energy while Nibali’s super-domestiques hauled them up and down the mountains.
It was the contest for the King of the Mountains jersey that animated this race, at least for the first half, with Thomas Voeckler playing it with cunning and guile to vanquish Kessiakoff at every turn, earning enough points – he leads by 11 with only seven more still available – to be stepping on the podium in Paris to receive the Tour’s polka dot jersey. Voeckler said:
It’s a jersey which captures the spirit with which I like to race – with panache and on the attack.
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