This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Alejandro Valverde salvaged the 2012 Tour de France for himself and his Movistar squad as the Spaniard soloed to victory on stage 17, the final day in the high mountains. Valverde, part of the day's early escape, rode the final 35km of the Pyrenean stage from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Peyragudes alone, having dispatched of his breakaway companions for good on the hors categorie-rated ascent of the Port de Bales.
Sky's Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome once again asserted their dominance, dropping their general classification rivals on the mountain finish to Peyragudes to cross the line together just 19 seconds in arrears of Valverde. In the final kilometre, as the Sky duo had dropped the remains of a very select group formed on the climb to the finish, it appeared that Froome had the legs to bridge to Valverde, but Wiggins' super domestique backed off the throttle to pace Wiggins to the finish line.
Brad Wiggins after stage 17
Thibaut Pinot (FDJ-BigMat) crossed the finish for fourth three seconds later while Pierre Rolland (Europcar) pipped Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto Belisol) for fifth at 26 seconds.
Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) arrived alone in seventh place, 18 seconds behind the Sky duo of Froome and Wiggins, on a stage which must have proved bitterly disappointing for the Sicilian. Starting the day third on general classification behind the Sky pair, Nibali had his team on the front of the peloton for most of the stage in an attempt to crack Wiggins and Sky. In the stage finale, however, the Sicilian did not have the legs to even launch an attack on the climb to Peyragudes as he found himself in the final selection of Wiggins, Froome, Pinot, Rolland, Van den Broeck, Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan).
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Wiggins remains first on general classification, continuing to lead his teammate Froome by 2:05. Nibali keeps his third place position, but ceded some time on the final day in the mountains to trail Wiggins by 2:41. Jurgen Van den Broeck maintains his fourth place position overall, at 5:53, while BMC teammates Tejay van Garderen and Cadel Evans each move up a position to fifth and sixth respectively as Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack-Nissan) cracked in the stage's endgame and dropped from fifth to eighth at 10:11.
Last chance for the climbers
At just 143.5km in length, the shortest and last stage in the Tour's high mountains provided a tantalizing medium for several Tour sub-plots to perhaps find resolution. With a 53.5km individual time trial on Saturday, Nibali's final chance to put time into Wiggins and Froome, both more talented against the clock, would be today.
The mountains classification was still very much up for grabs between Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), ensconced in polka dots after sweeping all four KOMs en route to stage victory yesterday, and Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana), who lost the jersey the previous day but trailed the Frenchman by just four points, 107 to 103. As a maximum of 65 points were up for grabs on the day's five classified climbs, the polka dot jersey could still change hands.
And finally, only eight different teams had scored stage wins thus far in the Tour, and many squads with talented climbers yet to leave their mark on this year's La Grande Boucle were itching for a chance to deliver a stage victory on the last day of climbing.
Voeckler was again on the attack on stage 17, this time in the KOM jersey
Attacks were launched from the gun as the peloton sped out of Bagnères-de-Luchon, but nothing stuck until the peloton arrived at the lower slopes of the day's first ascent, the category 1 Col de Menté.
A fairly large group went out on the attack with riders such as Denis Menchov (Katusha), Movistar's Juan Jose Cobo and Alejandro Valverde, Europcar's Pierre Rolland and Thomas Voeckler, Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan) and Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) prominent in the mix on the mist-shrouded ascent.
The battle for the mountains classification picked up where it left off yesterday as Voeckler and Kessiakoff locked horns again. Voeckler's teammate Rolland was alone in the lead near the climb's summit, but waited for his team captain after Kessiakoff dropped Voeckler. With Rolland's help, Voeckler reached Kessiakoff in time to take maximum points atop the Menté, with Kessiakoff taking second.
On a wet and dangerous descent, conditions almost as treacherous as those which spelled Luis Ocana's doom in the 1971 Tour de France, Vincenzo Nibali took advantage of his descending prowess to bridge the gap from the maillot jaune group to the break. Sky remained vigilant, however, and closed the gap to within 20 seconds, prompting Nibali to sit up and be caught while the break could once again stretch its advantage.
Seven riders emerged at the head of affairs after the descent of the Col de Menté including Voeckler, Kessiakoff, Movistar's Alejandro Valverde and Rui Costa, Sandy Casar (FDJ-BigMat) Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R La Mondiale).
Additionally, an 11-man chase group had escaped from the peloton in pursuit of the leaders. On the attack in this selection were Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank), Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM), Blel Kadri (AG2R La Mondiale), Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), Gorka Izaguirre and Jorge Azana (both Euskaltel-Euskadi), Pieter Weening (Orica GreenEdge), Ruben Plaza (Movistar), Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Simone Stortoni (Lampre-ISD) and Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank).
The yellow jersey group on the Col de Ares
On the summit of the next climb, the category 1 Col de Ares at 55.5km, Voeckler once again edged Kessiakoff for top honours, extending his lead on the KOM standings to eight points, 122 to 114.
After another tricky descent the chase group finally made contact with the seven leaders, albeit without one member, Chris Anker Sorensen, who suffered an injury to several fingers as he tried to extract a newspaper from his front wheel at the top of the descent. Sorensen received treatment from the Tour doctor and returned to the peloton.
Liquigas-Cannondale continued to set the pace in the peloton and kept the break's lead pegged at approximately 2:30 as Voeckler once again beat Kessiakoff to the stage's next KOM, the category 3 Côte de Burs with 67.5km remaining.
Port de Bales looms
With the monster ascent of stage 17 looming, the hors categorie Port de Bales, the Euskaltel duo of Azana and Izaguirre attacked the break and were joined by Kadri on the wooded, false flat valley road leading to the base of the climb. The three Movistar riders tapped out a steady tempo for the remainder of the escapees while the Liquigas-led peloton continued to trail at 2:30.
Once the leaders began to ascend the Port de Bales whatever cohesion remaining in the group remained was shattered as the better climbers pushed the pace. At the front Izaguirre and Kadri dropped Azana while four riders emerged from the chase group: Valverde, Costa, Leipheimer and Martinez. The quartet would catch Izaguirre and Kadri with 8.5km of climbing remaining to the summit and almost immediately Costa surged ahead alone in the lead.
Five kilometres from the summit, Costa still climbed alone in the lead while the first chase group was trimmed to contain just Valverde, Martinez and Leipheimer, who at 15 seconds back had the Portuguese rider in sight. Further down the slope Voeckler was glued to Kessiakoff's wheel, the duo one minute behind Costa, while Liquigas-Cannondale's tempo had reduced the yellow jersey group to approximately 30 riders.
Visibility was dangerously low at times
Soon Valverde made his move with a sharp surge that immediately distanced Martinez and Leipheimer. The Spaniard crossed the gap to his Movistar teammate Rui Costa with ease and after sharing the pace for several hundred metres Valverde's pace proved too much for Costa as well.
Once Valverde ascended through the tree line the mist enshrouding the climb disappeared as he kept a steady rhythm through the exposed switchbacks approaching the Port de Bales summit. Valverde took maximum points at the top, followed by Costa and Martinez. Kadri and Leipheimer crossed together in fourth and fifth, while Voeckler once again outsprinted Kessiakoff at a KOM for the fourth time today as the pair rode topped the hors categorie climb in sixth and seventh place respectively.
The select maillot jaune group was led over the KOM by Jurgen Van den Broeck, who accelerated in the approach to the summit, and still trailing Valverde by more than two minutes.
After another treacherous, Pyrenean descent the race had now arrived at the final kick to the finish, first ascending the Col de Peyresourde on the side they descended the previous day, followed by a turn onto the climb of the Peyragudes for the stage finish.
With Liquigas-Cannondale still setting the tempo in the maillot jaune group, one-by-one the escapees were absorbed and dropped on the Peyresourde until only Valverde remained off the front. At 10.5km to go Valverde still held a lead of 2:20, but the strain of his day's effort began to creep into his pedal stroke while behind the yellow jersey group's tempo increased significantly as attacks started to occur.
After cresting the Peyresourde and enjoying a bit of recovery on a short descent, Valverde began his climb to the finish at Peyragudes with a lead reduced to 1:15 ahead of a 14-rider group containing the general classification contenders. The maillot jaune group was led by Liquigas-Cannondale's Ivan Basso and Vincenzo Nibali, with the Sicilian still not showing any sign of aggression since his initial dig in the early portion of the stage.
Indeed it would be Lotto Belisol who would commence attacking on the final climb, as Jelle Vanendert sped up the road soon to be joined by teammate Jurgen Van den Broeck. A re-shuffling took place culminating with eight riders climbing together in pursuit of Valverde: Wiggins, Froome, Nibali, Van den Broeck, Pinot, Rolland, Horner and van Garderen.
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. As was the case to the finish in La Planche des Belles Filles, however, the question remained as to who amongst the Sky duo was indeed the strongest.
Froome remained a loyal lieutenant, much to Wiggins' satisfaction