Team Sky are heading towards an historic double in Paris on Sunday after Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins finished second and third respectively behind Movistar's Alejandro Valverde in Stage 17 of the Tour de France at Peyragudes today. Vincenzo Nibali's Liquigas-Cannondale team rode hard to try and set him up to take time back on the final climb of the final mountain stage of this year's race, but it was the Sicilian himself who was distanced inside the closing kilometres.
The one man who could potentially have threatened Wiggins' march towards the overall win was Froome himself, who looked as through he could easily have dropped his team leader during the last few kilometres but loyally held back to shepherd Wiggins home.
Wiggins revealed afterwards that he had tears in his eyes as he headed towards the finish as the enormity of his being set to become the first British rider to win the Tour de France hit him. Froome was looking back, gesticulating repeatedly, encouraging the maillot jaune on, said Wiggins, who himself was telling Froome to head off after Valverde.
As it was, the pair crossed the linetogether, 19 seconds behind Valverde and three ahead of FDJ-BigMat's Thibaut Pinot. The gap between the two British riders in the general classification remains 2 minutes and 5 seconds, with Nibali today losing 18 seconds on Froome, meaning he now trails him by 36 seconds overall.
Following tomorrow's stage, which has a hilly profile but should end with a bunch sprint, Saturday's individual time trial gives Wiggins and Froome a chance to make the margin of their likely one-two placing even more emphatic ahead of Sunday's traditional procession into Paris - although 'procession' may not be the right word, with Wiggins having vowed earlier this week that Team Sky would look to set up Mark Cavendish to sprint for his fourth victory in a row on the Champs-Elysees.
That raises the intriguing prospect of the maillot jaune leading out the rainbow jersey, though with a couple of stages still to negotiate safely ahead of Sunday, the Champagne needs to be kept on ice for another couple of days yet.
The drama wasn't quite over for Team Sky however. After the end of the stage, Mark Cavendish, who had trailed in second last, a little more than half an hour behind Wiggins and Froome, tweeted: "Thanks to the dickhead who crashed me at 3km to go today by waving his flag so it wrapped round my handlebars. Bike's broke. Leg's swollen." Sports director Sean Yates would subsequently tell journalists that Cavendish, who is aiming for Olympic gold in nine days' time, was "fine."
Today saw the first jersey of this year's Tour settled, with Europcar's Thomas Voeckler now holding an unsurpassable lead in the mountains classification. Assuming he makes it to Paris safely, Voeckler, who just missed out on a podium place last year when he finished fourth on GC, will enjoy the cheers of the crowd as he is presented with the polka dot jersey.
Valverde and Voeckler were among the riders who got clear from the front of the peloton on the day’s first climb on the 143.5 kilometres stage from Bagneres de Luchon, the Category1 Col de Menté. For the Spaniard, the day would be about trying to rescue something from what had been a lucklustre Tour for Movistar, which lost sprinter José Joaquín Rojas to a crash in the opening week.
For Voeckler, on the other hand, there was the small matter of the polka dot jersey to consider. Yesterday, on his way to his second stage win of this year’s race, he had wrested it back from Astana’s Fredrik Kessiakoff and the pair were always going to shadow each other closely today.
The Europcar rider took that first mountain sprint, and would also beat the Swede over the next three climbs, although on the last of those, the Hors-Categorie Porte de Balès, there were by now five riders ahead of the pair.
One of those was Valverde, who had bridged across to lone leader and fellow Movistar rider Rui Costa on that ascent, using his team mate’s move as a springboard to launch his own attack. On the way up the final climb, the pace being set by Ivan Basso, working hard for Nibali, was causing riders to be shed out the back of the GC group, including once again defending champion Cadel Evans of BMC Racing.
It looked inevitable that Valverde would be caught, and perhaps if Nibali, the man who succeeded him to the Vuelta title in 2010, had been able to stay with the Team Sky pair, he would have been. Instead, it would be the Movistar rider, who returned in January from a two-year ban for doping, held on to take the stage win.
That doping ban had its roots in Valverde’s last participation in the Tour de France in 2008, when the race made a brief excursion into Italy and CONI, the Italian Olympic committee, found that Valverde’s DNA matched blood in a bag seized by Spanish authorities as part of Operacion Puerto. The UCI successfully appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to have his ban from racing in Italy imposed as a result of that extended worldwide.
In this evening’s post-stage press conference, Valverde was asked about doping but declined to answer, his silence on the issue contrasting with the eloquent humility displayed by another formerly banned rider, David Millar of Garmin-Sharp, when he won Stage 12 of the race last Friday.
Stage winner Alejandro Valverde, Movistar
“I've had a lot of bad luck since the start of the Tour, and it was very difficult to manage. I fell three times in two days, and it wasn't looking good. Then it was no longer possible to fight for a good general classification result, especially when Froome and Wiggins are so strong. So I focused on a stage win. I really tried; until now far it hasn't worked but we had to keep fighting the bad luck.
“When I felt that Froome and Wiggins were approaching me on the final climb, I gave everything I could to resist their chase and, after 500 metres from the finish line, I started to tell myself that it was good.
“This is a very special victory for me: I'm back in the squad and I'm winning again, like I did before. For two years I had to stop competing but I never stopped working. And now this is the fifth victory of the season for me. They are all emotional. This is why I was on the podium in a world of my won, and I was not able to restrain my tears.”
Maillot jaune Bradley WIggins, Team Sky, third today:
"The minute we went over the Peyresourde I knew that was it. I still felt fantastic at that point. We hit the last climb and I went on the front. I just lost concentration and started thinking a lot of things. Froomey was egging me on for more but I knew that [the riders behind] were all gone.
"I knew someone was going to attack and I knew it was going to be hard. As they were fatiguing off I was feeling better and better, so it was actually getting slower the higher we got up. Once we went over the summit I knew Nibali was in trouble and a few of the other guys. I had a little chat with Froomey on the descent and that was it.
"Obviously we’ve got the time trial to come but that’s very much our domain. It’s all looking very good at the moment."
He was also quick to pay tribute not only to Froome but also all the other riders who have helped him into such a strong position, adding: "We’ve done the majority of this race with seven guys supporting me and I owe an incredible amount to those guys.
"We’ve been an amazing team all season and I think we’ve shown here how strong we are.
"Chris will have his day for sure - and I’ll be there to support him every inch of the way when he does at the Tour."
Chris Froome, Team Sky, second overall and second today:
“I wouldn’t say anything’s definite yet, I’d rather just finish it off before we start talking ‘definite’ and actual results.
“We weren’t here focusing on stages, our objective is to win the Tour overall, the yellow jersey, and I think we have that secured until this point, I think we’ve done a really good job so far.
“That [the stage win] obviously wasn’t my objective today, obviously when we heard Vincenzo was dropping off the main group, that was a good motivation for us to keep riding hard and to stay at the front, I don’t know how far ahead Valverde was.
“I was definitely expecting him [Nibali] to attack but I could see on that second last climb his legs weren’t looking that super and that’s when I said to Bradley, ‘Now we go,’ and I think we maybe got a small gap on Nibali as well.”
Sean Yates, Team Sky Sports Director:
“It worked out perfectly. It was up to Liquigas today as they wanted to win the stage and they rode accordingly. Valverde hung on and did a great ride but ultimately Nibali cracked and didn’t have what it took to go for that stage.
“The plan was to stick together and at the end of the stage we managed to put time into all our rivals once again. It was a great team performance.
“We still have three stages to go and you can’t switch off until you hit the finish line on the Champs-Elysees. We’ll remain vigilant and keep riding just as we’ve done up until now.”
Tour de France Stage 17 result 1 ALEJANDRO VALVERDE MOVISTAR 2 WIGGINS Bradley SKY PROCYCLING 04h 12' 11'' 2 FROOME Christopher SKY PROCYCLING + 00' 19'' 4 PINOT Thibaut FDJ-BIGMAT + 00' 22'' 5 ROLLAND Pierre TEAM EUROPCAR + 00' 26'' 5 VAN GARDEREN Tejay BMC RACING TEAM + 08' 30'' 6 VAN DEN BROECK Jurgen LOTTO-BELISOL TEAM + 00' 26'' 7 NIBALI Vincenzo LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE + 00' 37'' 8 VAN GARDEREN Tejay BMC RACING TEAM + 00' 54'' 9 HORNER Christopher RADIOSHACK-NISSAN + 01' 02'' 10 MARTIN Daniel GARMIN-SHARP + 01' 11'' 11 KLÖDEN Andréas RADIOSHACK-NISSAN + 01' 14'' 12 ROCHE Nicolas AG2R LA MONDIALE + 01' 30'' 13 VANENDERT Jelle LOTTO-BELISOL TEAM + 01' 39'' 14 PORTE Richie SKY PROCYCLING + 01' 46'' 15 MENCHOV Denis KATUSHA TEAM + 01' 55'' 16 KERN Christophe TEAM EUROPCAR + 02' 10'' 17 BRAJKOVIC Janez ASTANA PRO TEAM + 02' 10'' 18 EVANS Cadel BMC RACING TEAM + 02' 10'' 19 ROGERS Michael SKY PROCYCLING + 02' 10'' 20 BASSO Ivan LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE + 02' 37'' Last man home on Stage 17 153 VANOTTI Alessandro LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE + 31' 32'' General Classification after Stage 17 1 WIGGINS Bradley SKY PROCYCLING 78h 28' 02'' 2 FROOME Christopher SKY PROCYCLING + 02' 05'' 3 NIBALI Vincenzo LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE + 02' 41'' 4 VAN DEN BROECK Jurgen LOTTO-BELISOL TEAM + 05' 53'' 5 VAN GARDEREN Tejay BMC RACING TEAM + 08' 30'' 6 EVANS Cadel BMC RACING TEAM + 09' 57'' 7 ZUBELDIA Haimar RADIOSHACK-NISSAN + 10' 11'' 8 ROLLAND Pierre TEAM EUROPCAR + 10' 17'' 9 BRAJKOVIC Janez ASTANA PRO TEAM + 11' 00'' 10 PINOT Thibaut FDJ-BIGMAT + 11' 46'' Points Classification after Stage 17 1 SAGAN Peter LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE 356 pts 2 GREIPEL André LOTTO-BELISOL TEAM 254 pts 3 GOSS Matthew Harley ORICA GREENEDGE 203 pts 4 CAVENDISH Mark SKY PROCYCLING 130 pts 5 BOASSON HAGEN Edvald SKY PROCYCLING 127 pts Mountains Classification after Stage 17 1 VOECKLER Thomas TEAM EUROPCAR 134 pts 2 KESSIAKOFF Fredrik ASTANA PRO TEAM 123 pts 3 SORENSEN Chris Anker TEAM SAXO BANK-TINKOFF BANK 77 pts 4 ROLLAND Pierre TEAM EUROPCAR 63 pts 5 VALVERDE Alejandro MOVISTAR TEAM 51 pts Young Rider's Classification after Stage 17 1 VAN GARDEREN Tejay BMC RACING TEAM 78h 36' 32'' 2 PINOT Thibaut FDJ-BIGMAT + 03' 16'' 3 KRUIJSWIJK Steven RABOBANK CYCLING TEAM + 01h 00' 38'' 4 IZAGUIRRE Gorka EUSKALTEL - EUSKADI + 01h 02' 37'' 5 TAARAMAE Rein COFIDIS LE CREDIT EN LIGNE + 01h 12' 23'