Bradley Wiggins (Sky) moved one step closer to Paris after he successfully saw off the final stage in the Pyrenees with a third place finish behind stage winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
Valverde, back from a two-year doping suspension which ended at the start of the year, was the sole remnant of the day’s break and narrowly held on to his lead on the final climb to Peyragudes as Wiggins and team-mate Chris Froome were in hot pursuit.
Behind the pair the remaining favourites including Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) lost further time and barring catastrophe Sky now look to have secured the top two places on the podium with two flat stages and a time trial remaining.
Yet on a day that promised aggression from Sky’s rivals, we were left with intrigue and possibility from the final few kilometres of the climb as once again Froome looked stronger than leader Wiggins.
Once the pair had broken free from Jurgen Vandenbroeck (Lotto-Belisol) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ-BigMat), with Valverde 30 seconds up the road, Froome could been seen urging and cajoling Wiggins onwards.
Froome remained with Wiggins, either at the behest of the yellow jersey or through team orders, and led his leader to the line less than 20 seconds behind the stage winner.
Whether Froome could have won the stage, how much time he could have gained on Wiggins, and what he was saying to his leader, remain unknown.
Meanwhile it was an opportunity lost for Nibali whose Liquigas team did much of the work on the front of the peloton during the day. Their leader’s strength failed when it most mattered, as Sky upped the pace on the final climb, and with it went his hopes of knocking Froome off second spot.
In sharp contrast to yesterday’s scorcher, the Pyrenees returned to their mist-shrouded and mysterious character on the last of the days in the mountains for the peloton.
Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) both made the early break and fought tooth and nail for the points in the King of the Mountains classification, the Frenchman coming out on top over the first three climbs of the day to extend his lead.
The anticipated downhill attack from Nibali and Liquigas never came and it took until the final ascent of the Col du Peyresourde and Peyragudes for the action to really come to the boil.
With Valverde the last remaining escapee 90 seconds up the road, Wiggins and Froome began to wind the pace with 10 kilometres remaining, unusually short on their team-mates who have so often accompanied them on the Tour’s uphill challenges.
They parted the crowds to Peyragudes and emerged alone with 2.7km to go, from where none could stay with them.
Wiggins thanked a united team after the stage for their sacrifices in helping him reach the run in to Paris with yellow on his shoulders.
Yet the ramifications of the scale of that sacfirice, in particular from Froome, could lead to an interesting final few days for Wiggins and Sky.
Tour de France 2012, stage seventeen: Bagneres-de-Luchon – Peyragudes, 143.5km
1. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar 4-12-11
2. Chris Froome (GBr) Team Sky at 19 secs
3. Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Team Sky s.t.
4. Thibaut Pinot (Fra) FDJ-BigMat at 22 secs
5. Pierre Rolland (Fra) Europcar at 26 secs
6. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Bel) Lotto-Belisol s.t.
7. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale at 37 secs
8. Tejay Van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing at 54 secs
9. Chris Horner (USA) Radioshack-Nissan at 1-02
10. Dan Martin (Irl) Garmin-Sharp at 1-11
Overall classification after stage seventeen
1. Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Team Sky 78h 28-02
2. Chris Froome (GBr) Team Sky at 2-05
3. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale at 2-41
4. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Bel) Lotto-Belisol at 5-53
5. Tejay Van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing at 8-30
6. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing at 9-57
7. Haimar Zubeldia (Spa) Radioshack-Nissan at 10-11
8. Pierre Rolland (Fra) Europcar at 10-17
9. Janez Brajokovic (Slo) Astana at 11-00
10. Thibaut Pinot (Fra) FDJ-BigMat at 11-46
Thomas Voeckler aggressively defended his lead in the King of the Mountains competition
Chris Froome leads as Bradley Wiggins thinks of Paris
Alejandro Valverde wins
Tour de France 2012: Latest news
Wiggins’ Tour de France training
Voigt tries to carry on as RadioShack’s future seems in doubt
Frank Schleck positive for banned substance at Tour
Rest day review (July 17)
Defending Tour champ Evans has work to do in Pyrenees
Sprinters’ teams unwilling to work on stage 15
Evans suffers multiple punctures after Tour tack attack
Froome not winning this year’s Tour is ‘very great sacrifice’
Frank Schleck criticises ‘boring’ Tour de France
Tour de France 2012: Stage reports
Stage 16: Voeckler the Pyrenean king as he wins in Bagneres de Luchon
Stage 15: Fedrigo wins, day off for peloton
Stage 14: Sanchez solos to Foix victory to save Rabobank’s Tour
Stage 13: Greipel survives climb and crosswinds to win third Tour stage
Stage 12: Millar wins Tour stage nine years from his last
Stage 11: Wiggins strengthens Tour lead as Evans slips back
Stage 10: Voeckler wins and saves his Tour
Stage nine: Wiggins destroys opposition in Besancon TT
Stage eight: Pinot solos to Tour win as Wiggins fights off attacks
Stage seven: Wiggins takes yellow as Froome wins stage
Stage six: Sagan wins third Tour stage
Stage five: Greipel wins again as Cavendish fades
Stage four: Greipel wins stage after Cavendish crashes
Stage three: Sagan runs away with it in Boulogne
Stage two: Cavendish takes 21st Tour stage victory
Stage one: Sagan wins at first attempt
Prologue: Cancellara wins, Wiggins second
Tour de France 2012: Comment, analysis, blogs
Analysis: What we learned at La Planche des Belles Filles
Analysis: How much time could Wiggins gain in Tour’s time trials
CW’s Tour de France podcasts
Blog: Tour presentation – chasing dreams and autographs
Comment: Cavendish the climber
Tour de France 2012: Photo galleries
Stage 16 by Graham Watson
Stage 15 by Graham Watson
Stage 14 by Graham Watson
Stage 13 by Graham Watson
Stage 12 by Graham Watson
Stage 11 by Graham Watson
Stage 10 by Graham Watson
Stage nine by Graham Watson
Stage eight by Graham Watson
Stage seven by Graham Watson
Stage six by Graham Watson
Stage five by Graham Watson
Stage four by Graham Watson
Stage three by Graham Watson
Stage two by Andy Jones
Stage two by Graham Watson
Stage one by Graham Watson
Prologue photo gallery by Andy Jones
Prologue photo gallery by Roo Rowler
Prologue photo gallery by Graham Watson
Tour de France 2012: Team presentation
Sky and Rabobank Tour de France recce
Tour de France 2012: Live text coverage
Stage 10 live coverage
Stage nine live coverage
Stage six live coverage
Stage five live coverage
Stage four live coverage
Stage three live coverage
Cycling Weekly’s live text coverage schedule
Tour de France 2012: Related links
Brits in the Tours: From Robinson to Cavendish
Brief history of the Tour de France
Tour de France 2011: Cycling Weekly’s coverage index
1989: The Greatest Tour de France ever