Wiggins all but assured of victory after final climb
BAGNERES-DE-LUCHON, France – Britain’s Bradley Wiggins overcame the mountains and challengers to retain the yellow jersey, while Spain’s Alejandro Valverde won the 17th stage of the Tour de France on Thursday.
After the last hard ascent, Wiggins maintained his overall lead and said he sensed “that it was pretty much over” with three racing days left. He’s trying to become the first Briton to win cycling’s biggest race.
Wiggins faces one last test — the individual time trial, his specialty — Saturday.
Flat stages await Wiggins today and Sunday, which features the ride to the finish on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Those stages aren’t expected to alter the standings.
He appears on pace to make some history: Wiggins would become the first Olympic track champion to become a Tour winner. He took the yellow jersey in Stage 7 and hasn’t let go of it since. No rider has done that since 1981, when France’s Bernard Hinault held a lead from the same stage all the way to the finish.
An 89-mile ride from the southwestern town of Bagneres-de-Luchon to the ski station of Peyragudes on Thursday featured three hefty ascents in the Pyrenees and an uphill finish.
Valverde, the Movistar team leader who returned from a two-year doping ban this year, won his third Tour stage in a breakaway. Christopher Froome of Britain was second, and Wiggins was third, both 19 seconds behind.
Valverde, who had tears in his eyes in the winner’s circle, had a rough start to the Tour with at least three crashes.
He said he sensed Wiggins and Froome closing on him at the end of Thursday’s stage.
“I went all out,” Valverde said. “When I saw there were only 700 meters left, I was really, really happy”.
Overall, Froome is in second, 2 minutes, 5 seconds behind his Sky teammate, and Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali trails in third, 2:41 back, after losing 18 seconds to them in the final ascent.
A two-minute lead after nearly 80 hours of racing and 21/2 weeks might not seem like much of a margin. But in stage races such as the Tour, the strategy of success for a leader is keying on his closest rivals.
Wiggins wasn’t much worried about any other riders. After Nibali and Froome, his next closest challenger was Jurgen Van Den Broeck, who was 5:46 back, a deficit almost impossible to erase without a collapse by Wiggins.
Defending champion Cadel Evans of Australia, after dropping out of contention in the first Pyrenean day on Wednesday, lost more time and trailed by 9:57. Still, he rose to sixth overall, after Spain’s Haimar Zubeldia lost nearly a minute to the Australian.
American Tejay Van Garderen — a BMC teammate of Evans — rose a notch to fifth, and was 8:30 behind.
Only two riders have worn yellow this year; Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland had it after winning the prologue. Not since 1977 has there been only one change of the yellow jersey.
The top three — Wiggins, Froome, Nibali — haven’t changed since Stage 11.
The 18th stage today takes riders on a 137-mile trek from Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde in central France.