British Cycling’s Podium Programme riders Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome moved another step closer to sealing a Tour de France 1-2 after covering off a dangerous move from Vincenzo Nibali in the Pyrenees.
The Italian (Liquigas-Cannondale) made his dig on the final climb of the Col de Peyresourde, accelerating away from a reduced peloton on the steep first-category ramps.
Wiggins and Froome were the only riders to react, the Great Britain duo working together to shut down the threat on what proved to be a brutal mountain stage.
The trio rode into the finish in Bagneres-de-Luchon together after solidifying their podium positions over their rivals on a scorching day in Southern France.
Up ahead Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) spent the day in the break before taking his second solo stage victory of the race, fending off Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) by one minute and 40 seconds for another famous victory.
The day did not go to plan for defending champion Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), the Australian dropping almost five minutes to the yellow jersey after being distanced on the day’s final two climbs.
Wiggins retains a lead of 2:05 over Froome, and 2:23 over Nibali, after the first of a tough mountain double-header in the Pyrenees.
After the stage Wiggins, spending his tenth consecutive day in yellow, summed up the test, speaking to teamsky.com he said: “It was hot out there today – probably the hottest day we’ve had all Tour – and coming a day after the rest day, everybody responded differently to it. As a team we passed the test again. We were fantastic and it was an ideal scenario putting even more time into Cadel. We couldn’t get rid of Nibali – he was strong out there – but it was a great day.
“Vincenzo is a class bike rider and has won the Vuelta and been on the podium at the Giro, so you can never underestimate him. It was nice to finish with him and be able to take everything he could throw at us.”
Despite putting more time into the majority of his rivals, Wiggins insisted that threats to his lead remained, adding: “I don’t think everyone else has let us go. Tomorrow is another day, and another challenge, and then everyone’s thoughts will turn to the time trial – which is as significant as a mountains stage in itself. Today’s another day ticked off though and tomorrow’s a whole other day.
“We’ll get tomorrow out of the way first before we can even begin to think about Paris. Tonight the process starts again with recovery, massage, rehydrating, and then warming down to ensure we’re good to go again in the morning.”
After a fast start an abnormally large breakaway group of 38 riders went clear as the race headed out of Pau, the action resuming following the second rest day.
The fight for the polka dot jersey provided an interesting sub-plot to the stage, with overnight leader Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) joining rivals Voeckler and Sorensen in the break on a day which saw big points on offer over four categorised climbs.
Team Sky returned to the front of the bunch to set a rhythm throughout the day, Christian Knees and Edvald Boasson Hagen working hard on the front as the riders crest the hors-categorie Col d’Aubisque and Col du Tourmalet climbs.
Wiggins’ rivals were weary of attacking too early, but on the penultimate climb over the Col d’Aspin, Nibali’s team arrived on the front to push the pace, a move which put Evans into difficulties and thinned out the peloton.
While up ahead Voeckler pushed onwards, Liquigas-Cannondale and Lotto-Belisol took up the pace-setting duties on the approach to the Peyresourde. Nibali finally put in a burst of acceleration, Froome and Wiggins closing the gap briefly, before kicking again.
The trio came back together towards the summit of the climb before Nibali attacked one final time, this time Wiggins putting the power down to swiftly stamp out the threat.
The race continues on Thursday with another mountainous 143.5km from Bageres-de-Luchon to Peyragudes.
Results of stage 16
1 Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Team Europcar 5:35:02
2 Chris Anker Sörensen (Den) Team Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank 0:01:40
3 Gorka Izaguirre Insausti (Spa) Euskaltel - Euskadi 0:03:22
4 Alexandr Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana Pro Team
5 Brice Feillu (Fra) Saur - Sojasun 0:03:58
6 Jens Voigt (Ger) RadioShack-Nissan 0:04:18
7 Daniel Martin (Irl) Garmin - Sharp 0:06:08
8 Simone Stortoni (Ita) Lampre - ISD
9 Giampaolo Caruso (Ita) Katusha Team
10 Laurens Ten Dam (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:06:11
General Classification after Stage 16:
1 Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky Procycling 74:15:32
2 Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling 0:02:05
3 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:02:23
4 Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Lotto Belisol Team 0:05:46
5 Haimar Zubeldia Agirre (Spa) RadioShack-Nissan 0:07:13
6 Tejay Van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing Team 0:07:55
7 Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team 0:08:06
8 Janez Brajkovic (Slo) Astana Pro Team 0:09:09
9 Pierre Rolland (Fra) Team Europcar 0:10:10
10 Thibaut Pinot (Fra) FDJ-Big Mat 0:11:43