Wiggins deflects Nibali's mountain attacks, closes in on Tour victory
Leaders Wiggins, Froome, Nibali showed how racing is more dramatic in mountains
Nibali launched a series of attacks, but Wiggins and Froome caught him each time
Stage winner Thomas Voeckler displayed a range of expressions during the climbs
Bagneres-de-Luchon, France -- Some riders use altitude-simulation tents to get an edge. Others go to the pharmacological dark side. (Toodles to you, Frank Schleck, the RadioShack Nissan Trek rider who withdrew from the Tour yesterday after an "adverse analytical finding" for a banned diuretic.)
And then there's Bradley Wiggins, who has the garden shed in the backyard of his family's home in Lancashire. When he needs to simulate a hot climate -- often a problem in northwest England -- Wiggins will repair to his TARDIS-sized shed (also used to store overflow guitars from his ever-expanding collection), put his bike on rollers, crank the heat and ... suffer. For hours.
Which brings us to today's hellishly hot Stage 16. The peloton arrived in the Pyrenees along with a heat wave that pushed temperatures into the 90s -- miserable conditions, certainly, but nothing race leader Wiggins hasn't prepped for in his trusty shed. On Wednesday's menu: a pair of (hors categorie climbs -- the storied Aubisque and Tourmalet -- followed by the only slightly less gnarly Col d'Aspin and the Peyresourde. With Paris looming and just one more mountain stage between here and the Champs Élysées, today was the day for Wiggins' rivals to bust a move.
While no less jagged than the Alps, the Pyrenees, lying south of them, are greener and more verdant -- almost impossibly so after the wet summer that preceded today's furnace-like conditions. Basque country is much more remote and rural; the roads are steeper and narrower. The crowds press in closer, the descents are more demanding and dangerous. The racing, in my opinion, is more dramatic.
On Wednesday, however, the Heads of State (coinage: NBC's Phil Liggett) made us wait for that drama. With French hero Thomas Voeckler nine minutes up the road, riding his heart out for the stage win and the polka dot jersey, Wiggins and his chief threat, the gifted, unpredictable Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale, spent five hours nervously side-eyeing one another, waiting for the fireworks that would determine the winner of this race.
The detonation, the moment we've awaited for 2 ½ weeks, came four kilometers from the summit of the final climb. Nibali's lime-jerseyed lieutenant Ivan Basso had spent the previous half-hour tenderizing the yellow-jersey group, setting a heartless pace up the Col d'Aspin, and then the Peyresourde. (Among the riders spat out the back was BMC's Cadel Evans, who won this race a year ago but returned with inferior form that was cruelly exposed on the slopes of the last two cols.)
At a section of the Peyresourde where the gradient kicked up to eight, then nine percent, Nibali unleashed the first of five or so accelerations. Wiggins, and teammate Chris Froome by his side, had been waiting all day -- all week, all of July! -- for this gambit, so naturally they ... let him go.
They let him get 30 bike lengths up the road and then Froome got the instructions: chase him down. So they did, Froome busier on the bike, more herky-jerky, and Wiggins immobile but for his legs, as if he were ticking off laps in the velodrome back in Manchester. After bringing the Italian back, Nibali would remain caught for a minute or two, then uncork another attack, reminiscent of Alberto Contador in the Spaniard's heyday. Each time he launched, Nibali opened a little less of a gap. His final push came with the summit in sight. With Froome knackered, Wiggins handled this one himself, reeling his rival in just as they crested the col.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is your Tour de France.
Wiggins and Froome (who sits in second place, two minutes behind his leader) took Nibali's best shots, and the standings remain unchanged. Of course the Italian isn't giving up. "I'm not finished, I will attack tomorrow," he vowed. And Thursday's journey over the dastardly Port de Bales and up (the other side of) the Peyresourde will afford him ample opportunities to make trouble.
"This is what we've trained for and that's what we've prepared for," said Wiggins afterward, once again saluting the yeoman-like efforts of his mountain guides like Froome, Mick Rogers and Richie Porte (but through some oversight making no mention of the shed). "All year it's been about this and training in this kind of heat and for these climbs."
Going into the Pyrenees, he'd resisted being drawn into conversations about the savage nature of the climbs. "Whatever they put in front of you, it ultimately boils down to the same thing -- if you haven't got it physically, you're going to get dropped."
He has spent the past 16 stages proving that that he's got it. Nibali trails him by 2:23, but the Sky captain will put at least that much time into him in Saturday's 53.5km time trial. So Nibali doesn't need 2 ½ minutes, he needs five. If the Englishman manages to stay upright on his bike, that's not going to happen.
The French aren't talking about Wiggins or Nibali or Evans tonight. They're celebrating the second stage win of this Tour by Europcar's Voeckler, who once again got into the breakaway group of 38 men, eventually riding all of them off his wheel. (With Voeckler starting the day 45 minutes off the lead, the Heads of State were happy to let him go.)
No less remarkable than his indomitable engine is the impressive array of dramatic faces Voeckler pulls over the course of a mountain stage. The Tour inflicts great suffering, and the French love to see it reflected on the countenances of their riders. No one obliges them like Voeckler, who has more expressions to convey the various shades of his anguish than eskimos have words for "snow." Here he is bug-eyed, puffing his cheeks like a bellows; now his eyes are raised to the heavens, as if he pleading for the strength to go on; now his jaw is set -- see his resolve! He saves the rictus-of-agony for his most supreme efforts -- such as the victory-sealing surge he produced two kilometers from the final summit.
He's never won the race, but over the course of his ten Tours, Voeckler has spent 20 days in the maillot jaune. His feat today will feed his legend fatter.
Wiggins, meanwhile, spins calmly towards Paris, where his legend waits to be born.