Sat, Jul 21, 2012 - Page 20 News List

Mountains over, Bradley Wiggins senses victory

OVER THE HILLS:Britain’s Bradley Wiggins finished close behind stage 17 winner Alejandro Valverde to leave the Pyrenees behind him, with little left in his way

AP, BAGNERES-DE-LUCHON, France

Ain’t no mountain high enough to keep Bradley Wiggins from winning the Tour de France.

The three-time Olympic champion — known more for speed than scaling ascents — closed in on Tour victory by finishing close behind stage 17 winner Alejandro Valverde on Thursday in the race’s Pyrenees finale.

As Wiggins cleared the stage’s last big climb with his top rivals in his wake, his mind drifted as he sensed his quest to be Britain’s first winner of cycling’s showpiece race was now very close.

The only real blip came in the seemingly condescending hand-waving from second-placed Christopher Froome, his own teammate, to prod Wiggins to go faster to chase Valverde — to no avail.

“We rode away from the rest of the field and I just totally lost concentration, everything,” Wiggins said. “I was thinking of lots of things at that time ... the fight had gone from me at that point.”

It signaled a rare — if permissible, with three racing days left — lapse from the single-minded ambition of his Sky Team. He looks all but certain to win the Tour with a time trial — his specialty — on tap today.

For bookmakers and seasoned Tour fans, Wiggins has always been the pre-race favorite. The questions were whether he would keep his head in the face of a media spotlight and pressures, and hold up in the mountains.

Wiggins and his Sky cohorts answered that emphatically: He did.

It is clear now that if he loses, it will not be because of the mountains that were once seen as his weak point.

The 143.5km ride from the southwestern town of Bagneres-de-Luchon to the ski station of Peyragudes featured three hefty ascents in the Pyrenees and an uphill finish.

On the last ascent, Froome, a Kenyan-born Briton, powered ahead, with Wiggins struggling to keep on his wheel, but Vincenzo Nibali of Italy, the only real threat to Wiggins’ title hopes, was trailing behind.

“Once we saw Nibali had cracked on the top of Peyresourde, we knew we weren’t going to have the danger of him attacking in the final [climb],” Wiggins said. “At that point, I knew it was pretty much over.”

Valverde, the Movistar leader who is back from a two-year doping ban this year, won his third Tour stage in the breakaway. Froome was second and Wiggins was third, both 19 seconds back.

Overall, Wiggins leads Froome in second by 2 minutes, 5 seconds, and Nibali trails in third, 2:41 back, after losing 18 seconds to them on the final ascent.

Flat stages await and they are not expected to alter the standings.

Wiggins won the first time trial in stage nine and he could win today’s.

A two-minute lead after nearly 80 hours of racing and two-and-a-half weeks might not seem like much of a margin, but in stage races like the Tour, the strategy of success for a leader is keying on his closest rivals.

Wiggins was not much worried about any other riders. After Nibali and Froome, his next closest challenger was Jurgen van den Broeck, who was 5:46 back, a deficit almost impossible to erase without a collapse by Wiggins.

Defending champion Cadel Evans of Australia, after falling out of contention on the first day in the Pyrenees on Wednesday, lost more time and trailed by 9:57. Still, he rose to sixth overall, after Spain’s Haimar Zubeldia lost nearly a minute to the Australian.

American Tejay van Garderen — a BMC teammate of Evans — rose a notch, too, to fifth, 8:30 back.

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