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Cyclists stake claims to jerseys

Majka looks good in polka dots; Nibali has a stranglehold on the yellow
Laurens ten Dam and Alejandro Valverde get an earful of support from fans as they climb toward Saint-Lary during Stage 17 of the Tour de France on Wednesday, more than 124.5 kilometers (77.4 miles) from Saint-Gaudens to Saint-Lary, France.

PLA D’ADET, France – Poland’s Rafal Majka led a late breakaway on the final of four tough climbs in the Pyrenees to win the 17th stage of the Tour de France on Wednesday, as Vincenzo Nibali took another step toward overall victory.

Nibali, who has earned the yellow jersey in every stage but two this year, made his latest case to take it home to Sicily and become the first Italian to win cycling’s showcase race in 16 years. He finished third and gained valuable seconds on four of his closest rivals.

Majka, who cheekily winked to a French TV camera with about a kilometer left, tapped his chest, thrust his arms skyward and shouted in joy after giving his Tinkoff Saxo-Bank squad its second consecutive stage victory after Tuesday’s win by Australian Michael Rogers.

“I promised Bjarne (on Wednesday) that I would win the stage,” Majka said of his team manager, Bjarne Riis.

Wednesday’s 124.5-kilometer (77-mile) trek was the shortest stage in this year’s Tour and the second of three days in the mountains along France’s border with Spain. It covered three hard Category 1 ascents from Saint-Gaudens and a final push up to Pla d’Adet ski station above the town of Saint-Lary-Soulan.

The Tour’s stage finishes at Saint-Lary-Soulan and Pla d’Adet in 2001 and 2005 were respectively won by Lance Armstrong and teammate George Hincapie, who later were stripped of those victories because of doping.

Italy’s Giovanni Visconti, whose solo breakaway with about nine kilometers (5½ miles) left failed to hold off Majka, was second, 29 seconds back. Nibali was third, 46 seconds behind.

Majka has demonstrated that he’s the best climber in this Tour. The 24-year-old Polish rider tightened his grip on the polka dot jersey that is awarded to the race’s King of the Mountains, which he already was wearing. With one final Pyrenean day ahead Thursday, Majka is looking increasingly likely to take home the red-dot jersey.

Majka said he felt “comfort” in the final five kilometers in part because he’d been saving up energy a day earlier by riding easy. He finished in a pack 24½ minutes behind Rogers.

By Wednesday, “I felt really, really good in the last climb,” Majka said in English. “For me, when there are a lot of climbs, it’s the best.”

Nibali, meanwhile, gained just less than a minute on four of his closest rivals. Second-placed Alejandro Valverde of Spain, who made a valiant recovery on the final ascent to avoid even more damage, now trails by 5 minutes, 26 seconds.

The exception was Jean-Christophe Peraud of France, who hugged closely on the leader’s back wheel and finished fourth. With his performance, the 37-year-old Frenchman made it an even closer race for the podium spots. He is fourth overall, 6:08 behind Nibali, but just eight seconds slower than fellow Frenchman Thibaut Pinot, in third.

American Tejay van Garderen, in sixth, also lost about a minute to Nibali and now trails by 10:19. It came a day after his hopes for a podium spot were dealt a big blow when he lost several minutes to the other aspirants for a top-three finish in Paris.

“(Tuesday) was a pity; it was an off day,” the American said. A podium spot is still possible, he said, “but it will be hard.”

Stage 18’s finale in the Pyrenees will take the pack on a 145.5-kilometer (90-mile) loop from Pau to Hautacam, featuring two ascents that are so hard that they defy cycling’s ranking system – one of them an uphill finish.

Then it’s a flat stage heading north Friday before an individual time-trial a day later, and then what’s likely to be a largely ceremonial ride for the yellow jersey in Stage 21 on Sunday to the Champs-Élysées in Paris for the finish of this 101st Tour edition.

“Considering (Thursday’s) stage to Hautacam and the time trial, (and) as I was feeling good, I preferred to go and gain a few more seconds and to be even more serene, just in case something could happen,” Nibali said of his attacks to gain time Wednesday.

Sixteen years after Marco Pantani won the Tour, at least one prominent Italian seems ready to celebrate. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi sent Nibali a text message inviting him to the premier’s official residence “to celebrate my victory,” according to the rider.

Not so fast, responded the ever-cautious Nibali, who admitted he nevertheless was pleased with the message.

“I replied that only after winning – if I do so – I’ll be able to say that I’ll be present,” Nibali said.

Tour de France

PLA D’ADET, France – A brief look at the 17th stage of the Tour de France on Wednesday.

Stage: The second of three high mountain stages in the Pyrenees that will conclude Thursday. Wednesday’s 124.5-km stage between Saint-Gaudens and Pla d’Adet was the shortest stage of this year’s edition, but it was far from the easiest, with a beyond-category summit finish atop Pla d’Adet coming after three first category climbs.

Winner: Poland’s Rafal Majka notched his second Tour stage win at this year’s race and the third for his Tinkoff-Saxo team. Majka broke away towards the top of the final climb to finish 29 seconds ahead of Italy’s Giovanni Visconti and 46 seconds ahead of race leader Vincenzo Nibali. The win also tightened Majka’s grip on the polka dot jersey for best climber.

Yellow Jersey: Vincenzo Nibali continued to extend his lead over his major rivals with an attack near the top of Pla d’Adet that only one other rider could match. The Sicilian now sits 5 minutes, 26 seconds ahead of Spain’s Alejandro Valverde and 6 minutes ahead of France’s Thibaut Pinot.

Quote of the Day: “I think it’s crazy that Nibali keeps attacking; he’s got such a big lead you’d think he’d be content to follow and let the other guys play it out. He just wants to dominate the race any chance he can,” American rider Tejay van Garderen said.

Stat of the Day: 31. Rafal Majka’s lead, in points, over Vincenzo Nibali in the polka dot jersey competition for best climber.

Next Stage: Thursday’s 18th stage will send riders 145.5 km from Pau to the summit finish at Hautacam, rated “beyond category” in the Tour jargon to describe the most difficult climbs. Along the way, riders will have to race up and over the legendary Tourmalet climb, a 2,115-meter monster that itself is rated “beyond category.”

Associated Press

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