Ilnur Zakarin attacked the break to solo away to the win in stage 17 of the Tour de France.  Behind him the battle for the yellow jersey saw Chris Froome and Team Sky dominate again, with Richie Porte strong, Nairo Quintana fading and Adam Yates confirming that he is a serious contender for an outright podium place as much as the best young rider jersey.

It was back to the mountains in stage 17 of the Tour de France, the first stage of the final stretch of racing since the rest day.  Up ahead for the riders was a journey of 184.5km that took in four climbs.  Two category 3 climbs early on gave way to the category 1 Col de la Forclaz which was closely followed by the HC climb to the summit finish at Finhaut-Emosson.  The day began without star sprinter Mark Cavendish, who withdrew in order to focus

Strength in the break and Sky lead the bunch

A strong breakaway group established themselves up at the front of the race, featuring both the polka dot jersey and green jersey.  Teammates Rafal Majka and Peter Sagan of Tinkoff got into the breakaway move with Stef Clement and Jarlinson Pantano of IAM Cycling, Tanel Kangert of Astana, Brice Feillu of Fortuneo-Vital Concept, Kristijan Durasek of Lampre-Merida, Ilnur Zakarin of Katusha, Domenico Pozzovivo of AG2R La Mondiale, Steve Morabito of FDJ and Tony Gallopin of Lotto Soudal.
Behind them a chase group formed with Thomas Voeckler of Direct Energie, Greg van Avermaet of BMC Racing, Alberto Losada of Katusha, Alexey Lutsenko of Astana, Serge Pauwels of Dimension Data, Ruben Plaza of Orica-BikeExchange, Julian Alaphilippe of Etixx-Quick Step and Rui Costa of Lampre-Merida.  After initially getting to within 1.10mins of the break, Voeckler, Lutsenko and van Avermaet, left their companions and went off in pursuit of the leaders.

Behind them Team Sky led the peloton and were content to let the break push out their advantage with no one posing a threat to the general classification.  At the climb of the Col des Mosses, peaking at 105km into the race, Voeckler, van Avermaet and Lutsenko bridged across to the leaders; giving the group a little added impetus.  The peloton had let the break gain an advantage of over 11 minutes with the worst climbs to come in this all-Swiss stage.

Archbold hits the deck

On the descent of the Col des Mosses disaster struck for Shane Archbold, who hit the deck and took what looked like a nasty knock.  The crash took place with a wall on the right hand side and it was unclear exactly what the circumstances around the crash were; whether he’d collided with the wall or not.  He was back on his bike though and chasing to get back on the main field; that at this stage was still together.  At the doctor’s car he was treated for damage on his left side, particularly his arm and shoulder, but crucially he was able to get back into the bunch and continue racing.  He joined George Bennett and Greg Henderson at the back of the peloton, with the three of them looking to simply get through the day and conserve as much energy as possible for the rest of the race to come.

Meanwhile up ahead the break’s lead continued to grow, and in the run up to the intermediate sprint with 42km to go the break’s lead breached the 12 minute gap.  The 11 riders were still together, while behind them the likes of Rui Costa of Lampre-Merida drifted back to the peloton.  Peter Sagan led the field across the intermediate sprint with Serge Pauwels, Julian Alaphilippe and Alberto Losada still chasing but more than 3 minutes back.

As the break hit the climb of the Col de la Forclaz Rafal Majka led the way with the breakaway going up and over 13 minutes.  Peter Sagan had done his work for the day in acquiring a few more points for his green jersey campaign.  With the withdrawal of Cavendish from the race, Sagan’s lead was now near unassailable.  Back in the peloton Team Sky were joined by Movistar, Katusha and Tinkoff who were set for what would be a very intense journey to the summit finish.  AG2R La Mondiale, Etixx-Quick Step and Cannondale-Drapac were all there too.

First attacks go up the road

With 27.7km to go Tony Gallopin of Lotto Soudal launched an attack and was pursued by Astana’s Alexey Lutsenko, while Thomas Voeckler led the break who at this stage weren’t troubled by the duo up in front.  In the peloton though the pace of Team Sky up ahead – combined with the gradient change – was already having a dramatic effect at the back of the field with Warren Barguil, a crash victim from earlier in the stage, among those to fall off the back quickly.

While Gallopin dropped back into the break, and would later drop off the back of the chase group altogether, Lutsenko soldiered on and held a slender lead with 23km to go; 14 seconds at this point.  Meanwhile Movistar were briefly lending their aide in leading the peloton, possibly wanting to break up the rhythm of Team Sky who had dictated the pace completely until now.  Froome was at the back of the Sky train, with Trek-Segafredo’s Peter Stetina and Bauke Mollema poised right behind him with Nairo Quintana.

Lutsenko was caught with 20km remaining, the pace being set at the front of the break by Stef Clement  who looked to be working for Jarlinson Pantano.  Amazingly though one of the riders to be dropped off the back of the main field was the rider in 8th place overall; Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing.  Perhaps it was the surge in pace of Astana, or the simple gradient of the climb being too much; whatever the case van Garderen was gone and so too were his GC aspirations.

At the top of the climb Rafal Majka took maximum points to extend his lead on the KOM classification with Thomas Voeckler right behind him.  The gap was still a more than healthy 10.40mins; virtually assuring that the stage winner would come from the break.  Back in the bunch Vincenzo Nibali of Astana led the maillot jaune group.

On the descent of the Forclaz Jarlinson Pantano and Rafal Majka sprung into life and attacked in a repeat of their feats in stage 15 that saw Jarlinson Pantano take the win.  Importantly for Team Sky back in the bunch, Geraint Thomas was one of the early victims of the pace, but although a crucial rider for Chris Froome, the maillot jaune was not short of support from his other teammates; with three black jerseys still with him.

Majka and Pantano hit the bottom of the final climb with a lead of 9.54mins over the main field and a handful of seconds to the rest of the break.  As the climb bit for the chasers, Ilnur Zakarin and Steve Morabito both went on the attack, with Zakarin able to get the gap.  Also attacking was Brice Feillu in a bid to get across.  Zakarin managed to get across to Majka and Pantano, with Feillu presently in no man’s land 26 seconds adrift; and just 11 seconds ahead of his previous breakaway companions.

Zakarin’s masterstroke

With 6.5km to go Ilnur Zakarin launched a piercing attack and only Jarlinson Pantano could go with him.  Majka looked done and dusted, and Pantano was forced to dig deep to stay with the Russian; who was riding the Tour with his Olympic participation very much with a question mark over it, along with the whole Russian Olympic Team.  Zakarin was visibly strongest as he attacked again with 5.9km to go; dropping Pantano and now just separated by just a handful of kilometres.

Back in the bunch Nibali was done and pulled to one side with much of the climb still to tackle.  Diego Rosa was Aru’s final teammate but he too soon faded and after Astana’s valiant effort to set the pace, it was back to Team Sky.  Up ahead Pantano had a 21 second deficit to Zakarin with 3km left to race.  Back in the bunch Alejandro Valverde pushed the pace, but that was soon quelled before he launched another move.  Both occasions though saw Team Sky right there with him as the main field passed 5km to go.  Valverde was tamed as Mikel Nieve and Wout Poels traded efforts for Chris Froome; but Quintana was right on Froome’s wheel.

Next to attack was Daniel Martin who attacked and gained a slight amount of daylight.  Martin was less of a concern for Team Sky who patiently bided their time in bringing the Irishman back.  The pace finally proved too much for Alejandro Valverde, who’d done what he could for Nairo Quintana.

Under the 1km to go banner Zakarin was visibly in agony, with the gradient really kicking in for him.    But the same could be said for everybody.  Jarlinson Pantano was behind him by some 35 seconds or so as Zakarin tackled the final 800m, crawling his way up the climb, but knowing that finally the stage was his.  Zakarin took the stage with just enough energy to punch the air.  Behind him Pantano added a second place to his stage win three days ago.  Third place went to Rafal Majka who cemented his lead on the KOM classification; while Kristijan Durasek took fourth place.  2.32.

Quintana falters as Porte takes advantage

Meanwhile the battle for the GC was still hot, but no one was able to break Team Sky.  2km out from the finish Froome still had Poels and Nieve with him and they were riding impressively up towards the line.  But eventually something had to give, and it was Richie Porte who launched an attack.  It was an impressive move from the Tasmanian who was countered initially by Quintana; but the Colombian quickly found himself back in the Froome group.  Porte’s acceleration dropped Mollema, but then Chris Froome launched an attack to bridge across to Porte with Quintana on his wheel and Wout Poels still there.

Suddenly Quintana again looked under pressure and Froome took full advantage of this, jumping across and joining his former teammate with 1km to go.  Behind them Fabio Aru led what was left of the GC contenders’ bunch.  With 800m left Quintana launched one last ditch attack to try and rid himself of Adam Yates, but the white jersey was riding strongly to keep pace with the Colombian climbing maestro.  Richie Porte and Chris Froome continued onwards with Froome content to mark the BMC rider.  Behind them Adam Yates put in a dig that shook Quintana off the group’s wheel with 400m to go.

Porte crossed the line 7.59mins down on Zakarin with Froome right behind him, while Adam Yates led the rest across the line 7 seconds later.  But crucially Yates managed to extend his lead over Nairo Quintana by another 20 seconds or so; with Bauke Mollema another 10 seconds back on him.

The result meant that there was no change in the top 3 overall, but the time gaps had increased.  Bauke Mollema clung on to second place 2.27mins back on Froome, while Yates crept closer to the Dutchman; 2.53mins down on yellow.  Quintana and Bardet completed the top five on GC with deficits of 3.27mins and 4.15mins respectively.  Richie Porte’s efforts saw him climb a place to 6th, just 12 seconds shy of Bardet’s fifth place on the eve of the individual mountain time trial.


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