Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) won the 17th stage of the Tour de France on Wednesday, his second triumph at the race.
The stage featured four leg-breaking climbs — three Cat. 1s before the hors categorie ascent of Saint-Lary Pla d’Adet at the finish.
Majka attacked from a chase group on the final climb, passed several riders, and eventually found himself at the front of the race. He rode the final 2.4km solo en route to victory.
Giovanni Visconti (Movistar) finished second at 29 seconds back, while race leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) was third, 46 seconds behind Majka.
“This is a thank you for my team, working for me always, especially Nicolas [Roche], who was always working for me, riding really strong,” Majka said. “I passed everyone to win the stage, and now I have the KOM jersey. I’m really happy. [Team manager] Bjarne [Riis] told me to wait, don’t go with [Joaquim] Rodriguez, we need to win the stage, and if we win the stage, we’ll take the jersey.”
Tinkoff has now won three of the last four stages, with Michael Rogers taking Tuesday’s stage 16 and Majka winning Saturday’s stage 14. The team was dealt a blow last week when its leader Alberto Contador crashed out of the race.
Nibali has a 5:26 lead over Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) in the GC standings, while Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) is 6:00 back in third. Two others — Jean-Christophe Peraud and Romain Bardet, both of Ag2r-La Mondiale — are 8 seconds and 1:34 behind Pinot, respectively.
At the base of the final ascent to the finish line, four riders were at the front of the race: Roche, Visconti, Pierre Rolland (Europcar), and Amael Moinard (BMC Racing). Visconti surged ahead on the lower slopes of the mountain, which caused some chaos in the small group as everyone tried to match Visconti’s effort.
Roche attacked and reeled Visconti back, and the group was all together once again shortly after the attack began.
But with 9km left, Visconti tried again and this time he was successful. Now riding off the front, the Italian began his solo trek up the mountain that nearly resulted in a stage win.
Meanwhile, in the chase group that was trying to catch Visconti and his three primary chasers, Majka broke away as he attempted to maintain his grip on the polka dot (mountains classification) jersey.
Majka seemed to be enjoying his chase of the leaders, repeatedly smiling at TV cameras as he passed them. At one point, he made a show of how steep the climb was by grabbing a large antenna mounted on the back of a TV motorbike and pushing off.
Majka dropped Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) with 7.5km left before reaching the three chasers riding behind Visconti half a kilometer later.
Now riding with a teammate in Roche, Majka took a break and rode on his wheel as he geared up for his final effort.
One kilometer after that, Majka decided it was time. He surged ahead of the group, riding at a high cadence as he tried to reach Visconti. He eventually caught him with 4.2km remaining, at which point the two began working together as they continued to climb.
With 3km of uphill still to go, Majka looked fresh as he pedaled in complete circles. Visconti, meanwhile, was mashing on his pedals as he felt the sting of the steep grade.
At the 2.4km to go mark, Majka attacked and immediately opened a gap, going so hard that it seemed like Visconti was merely spinning on a bike trainer.
Majka slowed a bit in the final kilometer but still finished with a comfortable buffer between himself and Visconti.
“I tried so hard today. I really was thinking I could win, but unfortunately, Majka was looking for a win,” Visconti said. “He just dug deeper and had more than me, but I’m happy. It’s OK to finish second. I’ve been struggling with some of the tougher stages of this Tour, and I thought for a second I might have a chance to win.”
The contenders in the GC mostly rode together for much of the race in a pack several minutes behind the stage leaders.
On the descent after the third climb of the day, the Cat. 1 col de Val Louron-Azet, Romain Bardet (Ag2r) decided to jump ahead and try to improve on his position — he was fifth overall entering the stage.
Bardet flew down the descent and was just 1:35 behind the stage leaders at the base of the Saint-Lary Pla d’Adet finishing climb. His assault on the GC continued on the ascent, but when Peraud attacked the group with around 5.5km left, Nibali responded immediately. The pair caught Bardet shortly after, and Nibali then attacked with 5km left to race.
Nibali and Peraud quickly caught and passed Rodriguez, who was running out of steam, and continued to make their way up the mountain.
With Majka and Visconti having 3km left to climb, Nibali and Peraud were 1:30 behind. Bardet, Pinot, and Tejay van Garderen (BMC) were another 8 seconds back.
“Yesterday was a pity, it was an off day,” van Garderen said. “You can’t change that. You can only look ahead.” Asked if a podium finish is still a possibility, he said, “Anything is possible. If you would have asked me a couple days ago I would have said, it is really possible. Now, yes it is possible. But it will be hard.”
“It’s not been a good day for me,” said Pinot. “I felt a bit less good today and I had to limit the damage. I felt it right from the beginning that it wasn’t a good day. Perhaps I paid for my efforts from yesterday. I hope I’ll have better legs tomorrow. The Tourmalet and Hautacam are big mountains.”
Nibali and Peraud rode together the rest of the way to the finish line as Peraud earned the prize for the Most Aggressive Rider for the day.
“I’m very happy with my form, hanging onto Nibali in the third week,” said Peraud. “I had the good fortune of having him as a point of reference. He worked with me and I thank him for that.”
The race picks Thursday with the 145.5km stage 18 from Pau to Hautacam that features two beyond category climbs.