July 23, 2014

PLA D'ADET, France (AP) Four massive Pyrenean mountains featured in Wednesday's Stage 17 of the Tour de France, won by Poland's Rafal Majka.

The 166 riders still standing out of the 198 who set out from Leeds, England on July 5 have one more lung-busting day in the mountains on Thursday, when the legendary 2,115-meter Tourmalet and the infamous Hautacam climbs could well settle the race's final podium placings.

Here are five things to know about the Tour de France's 17th stage Wednesday:

VERY SUPERSTITIOUS: One of cycling's enduring superstitions is the so-called ''curse of the rainbow jersey'' - the unfortunate tendency of riders to have disappointing seasons while wearing the rainbow-striped jersey of world champion.

The abandon of Rui Costa, the Portuguese world champion who dropped out of the Tour with a case of pneumonia, has not only added to the mythology of this curse, but helped fuel talk of a new one. The so-called ''curse of the prince's handshake.''

Of five riders who shook hands with Prince William and his wife Kate at the Tour's ceremonial start in Leeds, none are still in the race:

- Mark Cavendish: Crashed out on Stage 1.

- Andy Schleck: Abandoned after Stage 3 with a knee injury suffered in a crash.

- Chris Froome: Abandoned after multiple crashes in Stage 5.

- Alberto Contador: Crashed out with a broken leg in Stage 10.

- Rui Costa: Abandoned before start of Stage 16 with pneumonia.

With next year's Tour due to start in the Netherlands, riders may well beware of any royal handshakes from the Dutch royal family before the race kicks off in Utrecht.


DOWN, UNDER: Australians may have cheered a stage win by Michael Rogers on Stage 16, but overall this Tour has been one to forget for riders from Down Under.

No rider with Australia's Orica GreenEDGE team has troubled the top standings of a Tour stage so far, with only four stages left.

Australian national champion Simon Gerrans abandoned before Wednesday's stage - his first in eight Tour appearances. Gerrans was the team's leader and best hope for a stage or high-overall placing when the Tour began.

The team's first setback came early, with Gerrans' Stage 1 finish-line crash with Britain's Mark Cavendish. Cavendish ruptured ligaments in his right shoulder and was out of the race immediately, but Gerrans soldiered on.

The 34-year-old Liege-Bastogne-Liege champion returned home after Stage 16 to prepare for the second half of the season.

''Obviously it's disappointing not to complete the Tour de France and make it to Paris,'' Gerrans said. ''But with the injuries I have from Stage 1 I think the best decision is actually to stop now and completely recover.''

Orica's poor results are in sharp contrast to the 2013 Tour, when it won two stages and had two riders, including Gerrans, wear the leader's yellow jersey.


POLES APART: Wednesday's final climb to the 1,654 meter (5,426 feet) summit of Pla d'Adet saw a Polish rider consecrated stage victor at the summit for the second time in Tour history.

Rafal Majka's win came 21 years after compatriot Zenon Jaskula became the first Polish Tour stage winner at Pla d'Adet, a punishing 10.2 km ascent with an average grade of 8.3 percent - a hairpin-filled climb so difficult it is rated ''beyond category'' by Tour organizers.

Pla d'Adet, a ski resort high above the town of Saint-Lary Soulan in the Pyrenees mountains, was last used as a Tour stage finish in 2005, when American George Hincapie had his only solo Tour win - a victory he later had stripped from him for doping. Disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong also won a stage here in 2001, which he also later had stripped from him for doping.

Perhaps the most famous cyclist to win at the Pla d'Adet is Belgian Lucien Van Impe. The six-time polka dot jersey winner scored the last of his eight in-line Tour stage wins here in 1981.


SHARK ATTACKS: Vincenzo Nibali isn't just content to protect his dominating lead in this year's race - he's attacking and adding to his advantage almost every day.

The aggressive tactics used by the rider known as the Shark is in sharp contrast to the conservative race strategy adopted by most Tour winners in recent years, including the last three victors Cadel Evans, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.

Nibali started Wednesday's stage with a nearly insurmountable 4 minute and 37 second lead over Spain's Alejandro Valverde. Rather than ride safely behind and mark his rival, the 29-year-old two-time Grand Tour winner rode off, gaining time not only on Valverde at the Pla d'Adet summit but on all his main rivals except Frenchman Jean-Christophe Peraud.

Nibali came third in Wednesday's mountainous stage, increasing his lead over Valverde by 49 seconds and putting 54 seconds into Thibaut Pinot, the Frenchman who's currently in third place overall.

Valverde is nearly five-and-a-half minutes off Nibali's pace, with another day in the mountains to race.


FRENCH CONNECTION: French cycling fans are salivating at the prospect of having one of their riders on the Tour podium for the first time in nearly two decades.

Only 8 seconds separate third-place Thibaut Pinot and fourth-place Jean-Christophe Peraud in the overall standings. Another Frenchman, Romain Bardet, is 1:26 behind Peraud in fifth. Interestingly, Peraud, 37, is the oldest Frenchman in the Tour, and Pinot, 24, one of the youngest.

French riders have appeared on the front page of daily sports newspaper L'Equipe nearly every day over the last week, with three of them in the Top 10 overall, stage wins by two more and Tony Gallopin's one day in the leader's yellow jersey providing much fodder for France's long-suffering cycling fans to rally around.

That enthusiasm was on display in Bagneres-de-Luchon Wednesday morning. When Pinot exited his FDJ.fr team bus a massive cheer went up that could be heard far down the village's main street.

The last time any Frenchman made the Tour's final podium in Paris was Richard Virenque, in 1997.

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