July 18, 2012 - Bradley Wiggins endured one of the hottest days of the Tour de France, and some late attacks from Italian Vincenzo Nibali, to move a step closer to becoming Britain's first Tour de France champion Wednesday.
To top it off, second placed teammate Chris Froome showed his Grand Tour class once more on a potentially perilous day climbing four big Cols in the Pyrenees to give Britain a chance of a rare 1-2 in Paris on Sunday.
"That's exactly the result we wanted. One more day down and one more day closer to Paris for us," said Froome, who was crucial for Wiggins in chasing down a brief threat by Liquigas leader Nibali on the last of the four big climbs.
Having started the 197 km 16th stage in third at 2:23 off the pace of Wiggins, Nibali had no chance but to try and attack the Englishman. An increase in pace by his Liquigas team on the 12.4 km climb to the summit of the Col d'Aspin, the penultimate climb, only served to leave defending champion Cadel Evans in trouble.
Nibali did not make his move until they had ridden on to the 9.5 km-long hike to the summit of the Col de Peyresourde. An acceleration gave the Italian a lead of about 50 meters. But Froome, who so often this race has looked more comfortable than Wiggins on the long climbs, easily countered. He brought Wiggins on his wheel level with Nibali, who took a breather, had a think and then attacked again just before the summit. This time, it was Wiggins who brought the Sicilian to heel.
"We were very comfortable there. I don't think he was really going anywhere," added Froome. With peace restored, the trio rode the descent to the finish together to finish the stage 7:09 behind stage winner Thomas Voeckler but nearly five minutes ahead of Evans, who dropped to seventh at 8:06. The only positive for Nibali was moving a step closer to a step on the podium.
"I'm happy, but not so happy," said the Italian, who now has a 3:32 lead over fourth-placed Belgian Jurgen Van den Broeck. "I know I'm in a better position for the podium, but I really wanted to try and distance Sky today."
With overall victory now unlikely for Nibali, unless Wiggins and Froome suffer a horrible off day, he wants a stage victory on the last day in the mountains.
"I wanted to try and win today, but it wasn't so easy after the 38-man breakaway escaped," added Nibali, a former Tour of Spain winner who has also been third in the Giro d'Italia. "But I will try again tomorrow."
Stage 17 is the last day in the mountains, and the third and last summit finish of the race. While Wiggins was delighted with Sky's collective effort, he paid tribute to the "class" of his Italian rival.
"The team rode fantastically well again and we've created the ideal scenario by putting even more time into Cadel Evans, and although we weren't able to get rid of Nibali - who is very strong - it was a great day," said Wiggins.
"(Nibali) is a class bike rider. The guy has won the Vuelta (Tour of Spain), he's been on the podium at the Giro... and you can never underestimate him. They gave us a good go over on the climbs today and tomorrow is another day, another challenge."