Bradley Wiggins appears to be on course to become the first Briton to win the Tour de France.
The last obstacle appeared to have been surmounted by the 32 year-old appeared to be removed as Vincenzo Nibali weakened on the slope of the Peyresourde yesterday but the events of the closing minutes of stage 17, a 143km circuit of the High Pyrenees, ensured that the nature of his victory will be discussed for many years to come.
As the riders crossed the Col de Mente, the Col des Ares, the Cote de Burs and the giant Port de Bales, the field was gradually reduced until only seven riders were left in the bunch.
The earlier part of the day had been enlivened by Thomas Voeckler’s successful attempt to secure the king of the mountains jersey, which he managed by outsprinting Fredrik Kessiakoff, his young Swedish rival, to the top of the first three climbs, including the hors-categorie Port de Bales, and by a crash in the feed zone involving Mark Cavendish and Richie Porte, two of Wiggins’s Team Sky colleagues, who became entangled with a spectator’s flag. But now the serious business began.
About a minute ahead, alone in the lead, lay Alejandro Valverde, the 32-year-old Spanish rider who returned at the start of the season from an 18-month doping suspension. Never a contender for overall victory in this year’s Tour, Valverde was an irrelevance to Thursday’s fascinating conclusion.
The seven-man bunch included Wiggins, his Sky mountain wingman Chris Froome and Nibali, whose own gregario di lusso, Ivan Basso, had already made his contribution.
Once a grand tour winner himself, Basso has also come back from a doping-related ban. Still a stylish figure on the bike but seemingly no longer able to switch on the turbochargers during a steep climb, he was the last of Nibali’s Liquigas team-mates to fall back after shepherding his leader most of the way up to the summit of the Peyresourde, the final climb before the ascent to the 1,603m ski station at Peyragudes.
The other members of a diverse but distinguished final group were Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing, who had seen his leader, Cadel Evans, humiliated once again; Thibaud Pinot of FDJ-BigMat, the youngest rider in the race and already a mountain stage winner; Jurgen van den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol, fourth in the overall classification; and Chris Horner of RadioShack, lying 13th. One by one Froome and Wiggins wore them down, with Nibali starting to drop back before they topped the Peyresourde.
“As they were fatiguing off I was feeling better,” Wiggins said. “so it was actually getting slower the higher we got up. Once we went over the summit I knew Nibali was in trouble, and a few of the other guys. I had a little chat with Froomey on the descent and that was it.” But not quite. The two Sky men could be seen talking and listening to their radio earpieces and the outcome of their discussion was hard to interpret.
Wiggins slipped to the front at the foot of the last climb but then Froome went ahead again. Both were spinning their gears at a high speed and Froome was starting to make frequent glances back at his team-mate, pulling a few metres ahead while gesturing for Wiggins to hurry up and join him.
It was these signals that caused some to assume that Froome was demonstrating to Wiggins that he is the stronger man in the mountains, as some suspected him of doing before the finish at La Toussuire last Thursday, when he appeared to respond to radio instructions to slow down and allow his leader to catch up.
“We were talking about Nibali and we said, ‘he’s nailed, he’s finished’,” he said. “I heard on the radio that we were alone, just the two of us. I just lost concentration and started thinking a lot of things. In that moment all the fight went out of the window, everything to do with performance.”
“I don’t think all the people who came out from the UK to stand on these climbs in the past two weeks give a monkey’s about that. For me, no one’s actually praised me yet. No one’s said, ‘you’ve been there since the Tour of Algarve in February, winning races – you went to Paris-Nice, you’ve respected the history of every race you’ve been to, you’ve raced and trained and answered all the questions of the press all year.’”
His voice quavered as his words picked up speed. “You’ve really taken it on. You came to this Tour as the favourite from Liege and I haven’t dropped out of the first two of the GC for three weeks now. You’ve answered all these doping questions as articulately as you can. But it’s all still in the negative sense. It’s ‘don’t you reckon that it’s just because Alberto’s not here?’ And even now, no one’s actually said, ‘bloody good on you, mate, well done’.”
When the translator began to render his words into French, Wiggins broke in with a final thought. “I don’t think Frank Schleck was in the race when he went positive,” he said. “And I don’t think Di Gregorio was ever going to do anything on GC.”