And then there were three.
Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali are now the only riders left in the Tour with realistic chances of a Tour victory. Even amongst those, it would take something disastrous to cost Wiggins his spot on the top step on the podium.
On one of the toughest and hottest days of the Tour so far, the top three dominated. They put time into everyone else in the field, most notably Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Cadel Evans.
Evans, in particular, had a very bad day, losing almost five minutes to Wiggins and tumbling down the general classification to seventh—over eight minutes behind the leader.
The defending champion has not looked comfortable for the entire Tour and a stomach upset before yesterday’s stage only added to the already mammoth task that lay before him to defend his title.
Evans' only remaining hope is to go on a solo breakaway attack and to put time into the entire peloton, as was the style of Eddie Merckx or Bernard Hinault (or more recently, Floyd Landis in 2006—but we all know how that turned out).
Evans has acknowledged, however, that peloton is unlikely to let him get away with that—then again Merckx and Hinault wouldn’t have cared what the peloton thought.
Champions make their own rules.
Nibali, however, is still in with a chance—slim though it may be.
He repeatedly attacked on the final climb of Stage 16 and shattered the peloton to the point where only Froome and Wiggins were able to keep up.
He can only hope that he took enough out of the Team Sky boys' legs and has enough in reserve himself to make a similar tactic work on the mountaintop finish to Stage 17 and to regain some significant time.
And significant time he will need.
Nibali lost over two minutes to Wiggins on the Stage 9 time-trial. The stage 19 time-trial is even longer, so the potential for an even bigger loss exists.
Stage 17 is the last really tough stage left in the race.
Letour.fr describes it as
"Short (143.5 km) but tough! We designed a Pyrenean counterpart to the Alpine stage between Albertville and La Toussuire. But now that we are a mere three days from the finish, if the general classification has not been decided yet this will be the last chance for climbers to build a buffer.
“There will also be loads of points up for grabs for the mountains classification... The course offers no respite. The first climb is the Col de Menté, famous since 1971, which will be followed by the Col des Ares and the Port de Balès. This will be the first time that the finish is decided on the Plateau de Peyragudes, a ski resort in the Hautes-Pyrénées."
Expect a string of hard attacks from Nibali. He knows how to win a Grand Tour race, having claimed the 2010 Vuelta a Espana title. He still looks to be in excellent shape.
His only difficulty is that he is effectively one man against two—Froome and Wiggins—and that will be what eventually defeats Nibali’s charge.
Bradley Wiggins cannot relax for a single moment until he dons the yellow jersey on Sunday morning for the ride into Paris. Even then, he has to stay out of trouble.
The peloton is forgiving—but only to a point.