Stage 17: Saint-Gaudens to Saint-Lary-Soulan Pla d'Adet 124.5km. High Mountains.
A Tour de France is always that little bit better when the Polka-Dot jersey wins a stage in the high mountains. I've memories of seeing Claudio Chiappucci and Richard Virenque doing it years ago and in recent years, Thomas Voeckler, so it was nice today to see Rafal Majka get clear of what was left over from the days early break to make it happen again. And how he needed his second stage win of this years Tour because for a while it looked as though Joaquim Rodriguez might take the jersey off his shoulders having took enough points to lead the competition on the road going onto the final climb.
The days break...or should I say, second break after the one that went before the climbing started was caught on the first climb thanks to a ferocious pace being set by the bunch right from the gun on a stage that only measured 124.5km in length but which had three category one and one Hors Category climb in which to crest.
It was virtually impossible to keep track of everything going on as they continued over each climb. Different riders would attack, some would then be caught, others would attack and the large group that once contained 22 riders including Pierre Rolland, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Frank Schleck, Jakob Fuglsang, Bauke Mollema, Nicolas Roche, Joaquim Rodriguez, Rafal Majka and Vasil Kiryienka, was soon scattered all across the Pyrenees.
It was the later, Kiryienka who made his bid for glory, like yesterday, attempting to be the man to salvage something from this nightmare Tour for Team Sky, but the attempt came to nothing when he was later picked up by a charging Rodriguez and Majka, desperate for King of the Mountains points. Attacks continued but all eyes were by now on the men behind as Bardet made an attempt to get rid of Pinot on the final descent of the day. He gained about 30 seconds on the yellow jersey group but was swept up onto the final climb to the Pla d'Adet.
It was on this climb that Rafal Majka made his move. One of the remnants of the days break, he had managed to reel in efforts by Nicolas Roche and Giovanni Visconti and was soon riding solo to the finish once again. With a second place on stage 13 and a win on stage 14 already in the bag, Majka was sealing the Polka-Dot jersey and handing Tinkoff-Saxo their third individual stage victory of the Tour and second in as many days after Michael Rogers had won yesterday. Majka was only a last minute call-up to the team to replace Roman Kreuziger, and had been reluctant to go having had a big Giro back in May. It was evident early he wasn't there to contend as he lost a lot of time on the early stages but it was that time loss that perhaps secured him the freedom to go up the road as often as he has in the high mountains.
Behind the yellow jersey group was shrinking, but the main five protagonists as it has now become...or four if you discard Nibali from them as the shoe in winner come Paris. Valverde, Pinot, Peraud and Bardet, each watching the other with half an eye on Nibali. And it was Nibali who struck first. Only Peraud could follow and the rest once again went into loss limiting mode. Their biggest worry was Peraud who in recent days has looked the strongest of the three Frenchmen to perhaps grab a podium place behind Nibali and Valverde.
And that is assuming Valverde retains his second place. The Spaniard lost contact to Bardet and Pinot at one point though did come back strong in the final kilometre to pass them both and gain five seconds. But five seconds gained to them was 49 seconds lost to Peraud who finished on the wheel of the yellow jersey.
There was no change to the positioning of the top five overall, but Peraud pulled within 8 seconds of Pinot for that final podium placing and is now just 42 seconds from Valverde.
Valverde will have to do something on tomorrow's final mountain stage to Hautacam because Peraud is a strong time-trialist and could gain serious time. The Spaniard will have to attack tomorrow and hope that those behind him in the GC have a bad day. It'll make for an intriguing race and it should set up that time-trial nicely. Baring absolute disaster however Nibali is secure in first, though all those behind him have had their troubles through the mountains and he has not, yet!
The man of the day however was Majka. He timed his moves perfectly and he didn't panic when Rodriguez seemed to be taking control of the King of the Mountains contest out on the road; he took the big points where it mattered, he crossed the line in the high mountains with the mountains jersey on his back, and he only has one more big day to survive in order to win a jersey from a race he didn't think he'd even be riding a month ago.
1. Majka (TCS) in 3h35'23"
2. Visconti (MOV) +29"
3. Nibali (AST) +46"
4. Peraud (ALM) s.t.
5. De Marchi (CAN) +49"
6. Rolland (EUC) +52"
10. Valverde (MOV) +1'35"
11. Pinot (FDJ) +1'40"
12. Bardet (ALM) s.t.
13. Van Garderen (BMC) s.t.
1. Nibali (AST) in 76h41'28"
2. Valverde (MOV) +5'26"
3. Pinot (FDJ) +6'
4. Peraud (ALM) +6'08"
5. Bardet (ALM) +7'34"
6. Van Garderen (BMC) +10'19"