Poland’s Rafal Majka was thrilled with his second victory of the 2014 Tour de France as Vincenzo Nibali further enhanced his hold on the race leader’s yellow jersey after stage 17.
The 124.5-kilometre route from Saint-Gaudens to Saint-Lary Pla d’Adet was a brute, with four categorised climbs including the finishing ascent where the stage result was decided.
Majka won Saturday’s 14th stage to Risoul and recorded Tinkoff-Saxo’s second successive Pyrenean stage win, after Michael Rogers’ success on Tuesday, as the team’s strong performance since losing leader Alberto Contador to injury continued.
“I’m just so happy about this result and these results that we have accomplished in the last couple of days,” said Majka, who consolidated his lead in the King of the Mountains classification.
“Today, my team-mates really worked hard for me and especially Nico [Roche] was digging hard to set me up on the final climb.
“I wasn’t so sure about managing the stage at first but [team general manager] Bjarne [Riis] told me to go for the stage and if we take the stage, we will have the [polka dot] jersey — and here we are.”
Contador began the race as one of the overall favourites, but it appears no one will challenge Nibali (Astana) for the maillot jaune now.
The Italian finished third on the stage, 46 seconds behind Majka, but crucially enhancing his advantage over his rivals for the top spot on the podium in Paris on Sunday.
Second-placed Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is five minutes 26 seconds behind entering today’s final Pyrenean stage, the 145.5km route from Pau to Hautacam.
“I’ve got a nice lead on GC [general classification], but considering tomorrow’s stage to Hautacam and the time-trial, as I was feeling good, I’ve preferred to go and gain a few more seconds and be even more serene, just in case something would happen,” Nibali said on letour.com.
Valverde finished 49 seconds behind Nibali yesterday. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) remains third, six minutes behind the race leader, after finishing 11th, five seconds behind Valverde, who recovered after being dropped by his podium rivals early on the finishing climb.
Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) is eight seconds behind his fellow Frenchman, though, after finishing fourth on the day, alongside Nibali.
Pinot and Peraud are battling to be the first Frenchman on the Tour podium in 17 years, with Saturday’s time-trial likely to be the decisive factor.
“I had a bad moment for sure,” Valverde said. “But I always had my team-mates with me. I was able to recover my rhythm and to limit the damage with Nibali and Peraud.
“It’s true that I have close rivals in Pinot and Peraud but Peraud is the one I fear the most because he’s very good in time-trials.”
The first hour of racing was frenetic, covering more than 50km, as King of the Mountains contender Joaquim Rodriguez missed the eight-rider breakaway.
Rodriguez’s Katusha team dragged along the peloton, with six riders at the front ensuring the escapees’ advantage wavered around the one-minute mark.
The Spaniard crested the category one Col du Portillon first, but soon conceded further ground to Majka in the battle for the polka dot jersey.
There were four leaders at the foot of Pla d’Adet — Pierre Rolland (Europcar), Giovanni Visconti, Amael Moinard (BMC) and Nicolas Roche (Tinkoff-Saxo).
Visconti attacked with 9km to go as behind him Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) burst clear of the yellow jersey group in an attempt to recoup some of the time lost on Tuesday’s 16th stage.
Majka bridged the gap to Roche, Moinard and Rolland, losing Rodriguez, and then continued his burst. He caught Visconti and accelerated on his own with 2.5km remaining.
Majka took the win with Visconti second and Nibali third as his advantage improved over Valverde.
Valverde recovered on the final ascent to overtake Pinot, with the battle for the podium set to continue in, although Nibali looks uncatchable overall.
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