Spain’s Alejandro Valverde claimed a stylish solo victory in the 17th stage of the Tour de France as Bradley Wiggins reinforced his grip on the race leader’s yellow jersey.
Wiggins, of team Sky, came over the finish line of the 143.5km stage between Bagneres-de-Luchon and Peyragudes on the wheel of Sky team-mate Chris Froome 18secs behind the Spaniard.
The pair had led a frantic chase of Valverde on the day’s fifth and last climb but Valverde, who had broken away from an early escape group on the Col de Peyresourde, dug deep to hold off the British pair.
Valverde, who only returned to racing in January after serving a two-year doping ban, had started the race with high hopes of aiming for a top three finish in the race.
But after hitting the tarmac several times early in the race, and seeing his team decimated by other crashes, the Spaniard’s objective became a stage win.
Having held a lead of 2:35 on the yellow jersey’s group with the final 15 km climb to negotiate, his relief was all the more pronounced at the finish where he knew he was under threat by Froome and Wiggins.
“I knew they were behind me, I tried to go faster and so when I saw there was only 1 km to go I was very happy,” said Valverde after what was his fourth Tour stage win but first since 2008.
“It’s a big victory for me and my team. It’s been a very difficult Tour for me, with all the crashes and drama we’ve been through.”
Although they failed to reel Valverde in, Froome’s pace, however, did some more damage to Sky’s yellow jersey rivals with Italian Vincenzo Nibali trailing home around 18secs further adrift.
Defending champion Cadel Evans, who lost nearly five minutes to Wiggins on Wednesday’s 16th stage to drop to seventh overall, lost more time after struggling to hold the pace inside the final few kilometres.
It means Wiggins will go into Friday’s 18th stage from Blagnac to Brive-La-Gaillarde, a sprinter-friendly stage which is unlikely to host a yellow jersey battle, with his 2:05 lead on Froome intact.
Liquigas rider Nibali lost 10 seconds to Jurgen Van den Broeck of Lotto, however the Italian remains third overall with a three-minute cushion on the Belgian, who is fourth.
Wiggins says he felt for the first time that overall victory is his.
“It’s the first time I’ve felt maybe I’ve won the Tour today. That was an incredible feeling, to go over the last summit.
“All the way up the last climb it was like, tears in my eyes.”
The 19th and penultimate stage Saturday is a 53.5km time trial in which Wiggins and Froome, who were first and second on the stage nine time trial, are expected to excel.
The race finishes in Paris on Sunday.