Bradley Wiggins made a huge leap towards taking the 2012 Tour de France with third place on the 17th stage into Peyragudes, in the company of Chris Froome and ahead of all the other leading contenders in the race.
Above: Chris Froome leads a smiling Bradley Wiggins over the line at the end of stage 17 of the Tour
The final mountain stage of this year’s race answered all the questions as to whether Wiggins could be discomforted in the mountains and whether Liquigas rider Vincenzo Nibali, third overall at the start of the day, could use his vaunted climbing prowess to threaten the Sky team leader.
In the event, it was actually Nibali who cracked in the final few kilometres of the mountain-top finish and Wiggins and Froome came very close to catching the breakaway winner of the stage, Alejandro Valverde.
In truth, they won’t lose any sleep over not winning the stage, knowing that they now have the race pretty much wrapped up, with only Saturday’s time trial left in which their authority in the overall standings can be challenged. Even that is extremely unlikely as both are very strong against the clock.
If the Tour were a Shakespeare play, it was well into the fifth act by the start of the stage, with the heroes and villains clearly defined and only the main plot threads to tie up. Thomas Voeckler and Fredrik Kessiakoff spent much of the day fighting out their own sub-plot chasing down King of the Mountain points, with Voeckler coming off best and extending his lead in the competition.
But it was the leading actors who were to move centre stage as the final day in the mountains reached its uphill climax. Before that, there was a scare for Sky with a crash at 55km from the finish, just after the feed zone, which took down both Mark Cavendish and Richie Porte. Porte was slow to get going again and had to visit the doctor’s car to patch up a scraped left forearm on his way back up to the main field.
Liquigas then assumed control at the front of the race on the last two climbs. There were no major dramas on the first of those climbs, except for Valverde riding clear of a disintegrating group of escapees, the remainder of whom were mopped up very early on the final ascent.
That final climb came in two distinct spikes, separated by a short descent. Over the top of the first of those, the Perausaud, Wiggins and Froome spoke at some length, both clearly still comfortable. Wiggins knew by this point that the other riders simply couldn’t hurt him on the mountains.
Wiggins then went to the front on the final short climb to the finish, his top lip pulled back over his teeth as the effort showed. He was initially marked, only for Chris Froome to go to the front, a move which unhitched both Nibali and Van Garderen, confirming that the Sky boys had the race at their mercy, the pair of them moving clear, with only Valverde still up the road ahead of them.
Wiggins and Froome were suddenly in with a chance of the stage win, riding into a linear bear-pit of Spanish fans on the upper slopes, all willing Valverde win the stage. Froome was plainly stronger than Wiggins at this point. A series of exchanges between the two, with some radio chats to the team-car also thrown in, suggested that they were not entirely sure how best to exploit the situation.
Should they launch Froome in search of the stage win, or stay together in a display of team unity and belt and braces safety? In the end, their hesitation gave Valverde the breathing space he needed to hold on and claim a popular stage win.
However, speaking after the stage, Bradley Wiggins revealed that he and Froome we actually caught up in the realization that they had the race at their mercy and that he allowed himself, perhaps for the first time, to think ahead and appreciate the historic win he is now on the verge of.
At the bottom of the final climb Bradley said that he realised “everyone was in bits. Froomy said to me ‘he’s nailed’ meaning Nibali."
"We knew he was on his limit. The moment we crossed the Peyresourde, I allowed myself to drift and that was the first time I thought maybe I've won the Tour today. All the way up that last climb my concentration had gone, everything about performance had gone."
Far from trying to go away on his own, as some were suggesting, Chris Froome was apparently trying to get Wiggins to work even harder: "Chris was egging me on to take more time and I was in another world, really."
Despite the fact that, for once, the self control and discipline that Wiggins has become noted for had dissolved, he and Froome came in only 18 seconds down on the fatigued Valverde and clear of the rest of the field.
Wiggins was typically generous to his Sky colleagues, referencing “My incredible team-mate Chris Froome."
Before adding "He has been absolutely solid the whole Tour. If he was in an opposing team then you would constantly have that battle all the time. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out you'd rather have him in your camp than someone else's. He's an incredible climber."
Wiggins also paid tribute to his team, calling them “seven incredible guys.” He finished by admitting “Chris could have caught Valverde. Chris will have his day, one hundred percent, and I’ll be there to support him.”
1 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team 4:12:11
2 Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling 0:00:19
3 Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky Procycling
4 Thibaut Pinot (Fra) FDJ-Big Mat 0:00:22
5 Pierre Rolland (Fra) Team Europcar 0:00:26
6 Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Lotto Belisol Team
7 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:00:37
8 Tejay Van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing Team 0:00:54
9 Christopher Horner (USA) RadioShack-Nissan 0:01:02
10 Daniel Martin (Irl) Garmin - Sharp 0:01:11
1 Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky Procycling 78:28:02
2 Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling 0:02:05
3 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:02:41
4 Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Lotto Belisol Team 0:05:53
5 Tejay Van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing Team 0:08:30
6 Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team 0:09:57
7 Haimar Zubeldia Agirre (Spa) RadioShack-Nissan 0:10:11
8 Pierre Rolland (Fra) Team Europcar 0:10:17
9 Janez Brajkovic (Slo) Astana Pro Team 0:11:00
10 Thibaut Pinot (Fra) FDJ-Big Mat 0:11:46