Off the Back: Tour de France, Stage 17

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Yes, today’s 17th Stage, from St. Gaudens south into the teeth of the Pyrenees, was the shortest of the Tour, at 124.5 kilometers. It might also have been one of the hardest, with an early octet of breakaway riders ratcheting the pace up to around 38 mph for the first hour of the race. Team Sky’s Vasil Kiriyenka looked as though he might solo to victory atop the Pla d’Adet, the afternoon’s fourth and final categorized climb. Such a result might have begun to redeem what has turned into a dismal July for the British outfit that gave us the last two Tour de France winners. But Kiriyenka faded, while Poland’s Rafal Majka (pronounced MIKE-uh) surged to his second stage win of this Tour. An elite group of chasers, including yellow jersey Vincenzo Nibali, lurked close behind. But you knew Majka had the race in the bag when he had the cheek to wink at the camera as he passed under the red kite, a kilometer from the finish.

Five Thoughts On Stage 17

1. Nibali, the Italian leader of Astana, has won three stages, and is clearly the class of this Tour. Such is his vise-like grip on the race – he leads Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde by 5 ½ minutes with just one more mountain stage remaining -- that his biggest threat seems to be … ennui. His late attack on the Pla d’Adet seemed motivated more by boredom than any urgent need to gain time on his rivals. “It’s crazy that Nibali keeps attacking,” Tejay van Garderen told NBC after the stage. “He just wants to dominate.”

2. With the maillot jaune sewn up, we turn our gaze to the battle for the Tour’s other jerseys. Cannondale’s Peter Sagan has likewise drained the suspense from the battle for the green jersey, given to the Tour’s points leader. Today Majka, the self-confident young Pole, gained a firmer grasp of the polka-dot jersey, awarded to the Tour’s top climber. Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez, from whose narrow shoulders Majka plucked the polka dots, will need to fly up tomorrow’s beyond-category climbs, the Tourmalet and Hautacam – and Majka will need to struggle – for the jersey to change hands yet again.

Cycling fans in the host nation are far more interested in the clash for the maillot blanc worn by the Tour’s “Best Young Rider.” After 17 stages, that wunderkind is Thibaud Pinot, 24, of, whose savage acceleration on the Port de Bales in Stage 16 dislodged his countryman, AG2R’s Romain Bardet, in the process relieving him of the white jersey.

The chasing group in action during the seventeenth stage of the 2014 Tour de France.

The chasing group in action during the seventeenth stage of the 2014 Tour de France.

3. Bardet had certainly had better days. A bigger victim of the Port de Bales was Tejay van Garderen, the American leader of the BMC team. Suffering from either a fringale – French for bonk – or recovering insufficiently on the rest day, TVG cracked on the Port de Bales, slipping from 5th to 6th in the general classification, losing 3 ½ minutes to Nibali. While he was probably never going to overtake the Italian, the BMC captain now sits nearly five minutes behind 2nd-place Valverde, and 4:19 behind Pinot, currently sitting third. To be on the podium in Paris he’ll need to gap those guys tomorrow, and take still more time out of them in Saturday’s long time trial. Possible? Yes. Probable. No.

4. For the 29th year in a row, a French rider won’t win the Tour de France – provided Nibali can remain upright for the next four days. And yet, this 101st Tour has marked a French Renaissance. First there was Tony Gallopin of Lotto-Belisol, rocking the yellow jersey on Bastille Day, then winning Stage 11 into Oyonnax. Now, a trio of Frenchmen are crowding the Top 5: the youthful Pinot and Bardet, plus greybearded, 37-year-old Jean-Christophe Peraud. The 20-somethings give France hope that their country’s streak, nearly three decades now without a Tour winner, may soon come to an end.

5. Keep an eye on Pinot during the crazy-fast descent of tomorrow’s Tourmalet, on which riders push 60 mph. Pinot developed a phobia of descending last year – a small problem for a pro bike racer – but appears to have conquered it. To help overcome his fear of high speeds, he drove a Formula 1 car in excess of 120 mph around the circuit at Magny-Cours, in France, during the off-season.