The last chance saloon. It's a desperate place, where gunslingers eye each other warily wondering who will be the first to draw. Stage seventeen represented the last chance for the climbers to dislodge race leader Bradley Wiggins from his perch atop the leader board. The 143.5km (90mi) ride from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Peyragudes offered plenty of vertical gain, including a 16km uphill finish in which to pressure the Sky team's leader.
Could BMC's Cadel Evans bounce back from his stomach ailment of yesterday, could Lotto-Belisol's Jurgen Van Den Broeck turn the screw, could Liquigas-Cannondale marshal all their resources and set up Vincenzo Nibali for a shot at the overall, or at least a stage win?
Nibali lit up the race early, as he tested the waters by attacking Wiggins on the first descent, the drop off the cloud-enshrouded Col de Menté, only 27.5km into the race. He leapt away from the Yellow Jersey and quickly joined the break speeding off the mountain. Sky put all their men to the front to pull their rival back.
After a discussion with Team Movistar's Alejandro Valverde, Nibali shook hands with the Spaniard and sat up, allowing the break to go and the chase to ease up. While this was seen on television around the world, it was a gesture that might have mystified non-racers. Valverde no doubt explained to Nibali that he was dooming the nascent breakaway with his presence, and that none of the riders in the break were threats to win the race or even displace Nibali from his third place overall. Nibali saved his efforts for later in the day and helped others, a gesture that the other breakaway riders will remember down the road or in other races.
In that break were King of the Mountain rivals Thomas Voeckler of Europcar and Frederik Kessiakoff of Astana, as well as several riders from Movistar and Euskatel. Voeckler proved the best climber of the bunch by taking the first three climbs of the day. Then Movistar went on the attack. First Ruben Plaza, and then Rui Costa set the pace on the 11.7km hors category Port de Balès, first dropping most of the breakaway and then setting the stage for a Valverde attack. Kessiakoff, then Voeckler were gapped by the Spanish accelerations. And Valverde was away solo.
With the stage half-over, Liquigas came to the front to set the tempo, keep the breakaway close and create a launch pad for their captain. As they ascended the Port de Bales, Liquigas riders gave their all, and one at a time, dropped back. Over the top, Nibali had only Dominik Nerz and Ivan Basso as protectors.
Onto the final climb, the first category Col de Peyresourde, Nerz and Basso paced Nibali and the Yellow Jersey group. Then Nerz dropped off, leaving only Basso to help. Next, fourth-placed Jurgen Van Den Broeck sent his teammate, Jelle Vanendert, ahead, setting the stage for a counter-attack. Van Den Broeck then accelerated, dropping Basso. This was the moment of truth, the opportunity every challenger was waiting for, the top riders working together to put Wiggins into difficulty.
Unfortunately, second-placed Chris Froome and his teammate Wiggins had energy left. Nibali didn't have the legs to attack, and he sat at the back of the elite bunch. Then Froome attacked, bringing Wiggins with him and dropping everyone else. They chased Valverde into Peyragudes, where the Spaniard won by nineteen seconds over the British duo. Nibali struggled, lost 18 seconds to the Yellow Jersey and another 11 seconds to Van Den Broeck. Third place overall is still secure, at least until Saturday's time trial.
It was a hard day for the team; everyone contributed to set up a strong finish for Nibali. He explained their strategy after finishing. "Today we worked a lot because we had the goal of stage win. Unfortunately, I had little problem in my muscles and I couldn't pedal as I wanted. I also suffered a little from the efforts of last few days. It has been a hard Tour. I would like to thank my teammates because they were fantastic, especially Basso. We showed ourselves to be a great team. I wanted to win a stage also to pay back their efforts on my behalf."
Stage eighteen is a return to flatter roads. The 222.5km route from Blagnac to Brive-le- Gaillarde is "flat" in Tour terms, but most cyclists would call it rolling, with four short categorized climbs over the course of the day. With the Points Jersey locked up by Peter Sagan, the Mountains Jersey by Voeckler, and the team classification by RadioShack, the stage honors are about there is left to achieve and that will likely go to a long breakaway. But then, the Tour hasn't been much into following scripts this year.
Stage 17 Results-- Bagnères-de-Luchon to Peyragudes 143.5km
1. Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar 4:12:11
2. Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling 0:00:19
3. Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky Procycling same time
4. Thibaut Pinot (Fra) FDJ-Big Mat 0:00:22
5. Pierre Rolland (Fra) Team Europcar 0:00:26
Stage 17 Liquigas-Cannondale
7. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) 0:00:37
20. Ivan Basso (Ita) 0:02:37
41. Dominik Nerz (Ger) 0:11:12
82. Kristijan Koren (Slo) 0:22:36
83. Daniel Oss (Ita) 0:23:20
88. Sylvester Szmyd (Pol) 0:30:57
89. Peter Sagan (Svk) same time
98. Federico Canuti (Ita) 0:30:57
153. Alessandro Vanotti (Ita) 0:31:32
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
27. Ivan Basso (Ita) 0:54:29
43. Peter Sagan (Svk) 1:33:16
49. Dominik Nerz (Ger) 1:37:58
71. Sylvester Szmyd (Pol) 2:07:20
98. Federico Canuti (Ita) 2:41:23
101. Kristijan Koren (Slo) 2:43:04
104. Alessandro Vanotti (Ita)2:45:15
112. Daniel Oss (Ita) 2:49:49
1. Peter Sagan (Svk) Liquigas-Cannondale 356 pts
2. André Greipel (Ger) Lotto Belisol Team 254
3. Matthew Harley Goss (Aus) Orica GreenEdge 203
4. Mark Cavendish (GBr) Sky Procycling 130
5. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky Procycling 127