Alejandro Valverde won a gripping stage 17 of the Tour de France from Bagneres-de-Luchon to Peyragudes and Bradley Wiggins all but wrapped up the Yellow Jersey as his nearest challengers slipped back one-by-one.
Today’s stage was the last mountain stage with three major climbs for the likes of Vincenzo Nibali and Jurgen Van Den Broeck to have a last push at Wiggins. An early break of 23 riders gained a slender lead of 15secs after 24kms and Nibali soon joined the lead group. As has been the case throughout the gruelling Tour, an unruffled Team Sky soon caught the Nibali group.
It was left to Thomas Voeckler, yesterday’s stage winner, to launch an attack, which meant he claimed the majority of the stage’s climbing points and tightened his grip on the King of the Mountain’s Jersey. Having stretched out a lead of 2mins on the rest of the peloton, Voeckler began to tire and this allowed a group of four riders to catch and overtake the Frenchman. The group included Costa and Valverde of Team Movistar who had clear aspirations of claiming a coveted stage win. Soon it was left to Valverde to ride on his own as he built a lead of 50secs on the chasing group and over 2mins on the peloton with 18kms left.
It was then that the real fun began as the rest of the attacking group was caught by the main Yellow Jersey peloton. Through the work of Ivan Basso, Nibali’s Liquigas-Cannondale team-mate, they began to close the gap on Valverde and with 9kms left, the gap was under 2mins. With 7kms to go, Van Den Broeck attacked but, as has been the way, Wiggins and Chris Froome stuck close to anyone who posed a danger. With 3kms left, and with only a gap of 1min 11secs to Valverde, Nibali could not take the pace now being set by Froome. Wiggins’s nearest challenger was finally broken and with 2.6kms to go there was only Froome and Wiggins left in the chasing group.
Going under the 2kms banner, Wiggins and Froome looked in a state of confusion. With 42secs separating the pair from Valverde it appeared as though Wiggins was ushering Froome to push on for the stage win. Froome seemed reluctant to leave his team-leader and as he has done throughout the Alps and the Pyrennees, Froome stayed alongside the Yellow Jersey rider.
And so it was left to Valverde to take the plaudits with a well-deserved win with Wiggins and Froome riding in 19secs behind. The significance of the stage though was that Wiggins put an extra 18secs onto his lead over Nibali and it would appear that Wiggins, barring any mishaps, will be victorious in Paris on Sunday. The efforts of Chris Froome cannot be underestimated in the success of Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky. Froome has been a constant ally for Wiggins and it is hoped that at some point Wiggins will repay the favour to his fellow countryman. We will have to wait a while before that question can be answered, but one question that has been answered today is that, not only is Team Sky the best team in pro cycling, but in Bradley Wiggins, they undoubtedly possess the most-talented rider.