Tour 2012: Team Sky Puts Final Nail In Coffin

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It was a misty, foggy day in the Pyrenees, where the cyclists in the 2012 Tour de France were battling it out on the final mountain stage of this year’s event. Heading into the day we knew that if anyone was going to challenge Bradley Wiggins for the Yellow Jersey they would have to attack today and that knowledge added a bit of intrigue to the race, which has been decidedly without drama this year.

As it turns out, there were actually three ongoing battles today. In addition to the fight for the Maillot Jaune, there were several racers hoping for a stage win and there was unfinished business between Thomas Voeckler and Fredrik Kessiakoff in the battle for the Polka Dot Jersey.

In the end, Stage 17 lived up to the hype as Wiggins’ Team Sky put an exclamation point behind their victory. The race leader and his chief lieutenant Chris Froome pulled away from the challengers on the final climb, gaining time on everyone including Italian rider Vincenzo Nibali who is currently in third. As Wiggins and Froome appraoched the summit of that final climb they looked especially dominant as all the other contenders fell away. Froome appeared to be the strong of the two, but like a good teammate, he stayed close to his leader and escorted him safely all the way to the finish line.

Despite those fantastic efforts by Froome and Wiggins, the duo finished second and third behind Alejandro Valverde of Team Movistar. Valverde was part of an early break away that saw a number of riders battling for King of the Mountain points, but the Spaniard was the only rider to survive that break and finished the 144km (89.47 miles) stage 18 seconds ahead of the pursuit.

Throughout the stage Kessiakoff and Voeckler jousted one another for King of the Mountain points, with the Frenchman staying just ahead of his rival throughout the day. That allowed Voeckler to extend his points lead to 11, keeping him in the Polka Dot Jersey for another day and most likely sewing up that competition for this year. There are a few minor climbs tomorrow, but Kessiakoff isn’t likely to be able to accumulate enough of those points to reclaim the jersey.

Today was a day for the sprinters to simply survive and get over the big climbs, so as a result Peter Sagan remains 102 points ahead of André Greipel in the battle for Green Jersey. There are sprint points up for grabs tomorrow and of course on the Champs Elysees on Sunday, but that gap should be impossible for Greipel to close. Sagan, provided he stays safe on the road, should ride into Paris with the Green Jersey already won.

American Tejay Van Garderen gave up some time to Thibaut Pinot on the final climb today but still keeps the the White Jersey as the Tour’s best young rider. Riding for Team BMC, Van Garderen has been tasked with watching after Cadel Evans throughout the race, but now that Evans has tumbled in the rankings, and has no hope of winning, Tejay has been freed up to pursue his own race. As a result, he managed to climb into fifth place in the rankings while Evans now sits in sixth place nearly a minute and a half behind his teammate.

For his part, Evans has struggled most of the Tour and never seemed to have the legs he needed to hang with Wiggins, Froome or Nibali. Yesterday he lost time on the final big climb and it was later released that he had picked up a virus right before he started the ride. We’re told that he was better today, but he still couldn’t hang onto the wheel of the top riders. Clearly he was still struggling to regain his strength and I can’t imagine how tough it must have been to take on those tough climbs while sick.

With the mountains now behind us the Tour now returns to the rolling plains tomorrow with a 215km (133.58 mile) ride from Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde. The route is far from flat but it doesn’t feature the punishing climbs we’ve seen the past few days, which will give the sprinters an opportunity to stretch their legs once again. It should be a wide open day and look for a break away with a few riders looking to get one last shot at glory before the race ends this weekend.

Personally I have to say that the 2012 Tour has been a bit underwhelming. Wiggins and Sky have been so dominant from the start that there hasn’t been a lot of drama. The other contenders haven’t been able to compete with such a strong team and only Froome has appeared to be a challenger to Wiggins. It’ll be interesting to see how the team dynamics evolve following the season as it seems that Froome has his own designs on wearing the Yellow Jersey one day.

Barring any strange accidents out on the road, we already know this year’s winner and we have for nearly two weeks.

Kraig Becker