Stage 17 was the last day in the Pyrenees. Stages 18 and 20 will finish in bunch sprints, with no chance for anyone to take time, and stage 19 is a time trial, for which Wiggins is the clear favourite, so anyone with remaining GC ambitions had to attack hard today. The stage itself was 143km, with two first category climbs (the first after just 17kms, and a mountain top finish), punctuated by the HC categorised Port de Bales. As yesterday, the early part of the stage was dominated by attacks, but nothing stuck until the lower slopes of the first climb, where a fairly large group got away. As they have all race, Sky controlled the pace in the bunch, helped at this point by Liquigas-Cannondale, whilst in the break we saw Voeckler (Europcar) and Kessiakoff (Astana) battling hard for the king of the mountains points. In the end, Voeckler proved too wily for the Swede, finishing ahead of him on all of the climbs they contested, and he will surely now take the jersey all the way to Paris, a well deserved classification victory. On the wet slopes of the first major descent, Nibali used his famous descending to gap the bunch, but Sky were all over him, closing the gap to 20 seconds, prompting Nibali to sit up.
By this point we had 7 riders in the lead, including Voeckler and Kessiakoff, Movistar‘s Alejandro Valverde and Rui Costa, Sandy Casar (FDJ-BigMat) Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R La Mondiale). A chase group of 11 riders had formed behind, with some big names included, and by the bottom of the Port de Bales the two groups had combined, leaving Movistar with three riders. They took up the initiative and tapped out a steady tempo to consolidate the break-away’s lead. As they hit the climb proper however, the true climbers pushed the pace, and the group splintered, leaving Rui Costa out alone at the front, pursued by Valverde, Martinez and Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack-Nissan). Soon Valverde made his move, attack his companions and gliding across to team mate Rui Costa, who paced him for several hundred metres before Valverde proved too much for him as well, and forged on alone, cresting the climb with a good lead over both the pursuants and the main bunch. Back in the main bunch, the work of Liquigas had blown the main bunch apart, with just 30 riders remaining in the yellow jersey group. The descent was slippery and tricky, but everyone arrived intact at the bottom of the last climb of the day, where Liquigas continued to set a searing pace in the select yellow jersey group. One by one the breakaway were caught and passed, until only Valverde remained out front, his slender lead decreasing.
It was clear that Liquigas were trying to set up an attack for Nibali, but in the end it was Jelle Vanendert and Jurgen Van Den Broek of Lotto-Bellisol who kicked things of. A re-shuffling took place culminating with eight riders climbing together in pursuit of Valverde, including Wiggins, Froome and Nibali. Wiggins had a word with Froome and soon Froome upped the tempo enough to drop everyone but his teammate in the yellow jersey. Soon, however, even Wiggins couldn’t handle the pace as they drove into the final kilometre, rapidly closing the gap to Valverde who was clinging to hopes of a stage win with all his might. Froome waited for his captain, however, and while they may have lost the opportunity for another Sky stage win, they crossed the finish line together 19 seconds behind the Spanish stage winner and ahead of their general classification rivals yet again. Despite his best efforts, Nibali lost time to Wiggins and Froome, and with the only deciding stage remaining being a time trial it seems clear that the race is set for a historic British 1-2
Today’s stage is a lumpy one, and with yesterdays efforts behind them it should be perfect for the breakaway to stay away.