• Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) had the best climbing legs on Stage 17 (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) took the win at the end of one of the hardest stages of this year's Tour, as behind him the cracks in the tiring general classification riders appeared and saw time gaps form.
By
Cycling Central

21 Jul 2016 - 2:45 AM  UPDATED 21 Jul 2016 - 6:04 AM

Zakarin forged clear from the midpoint of the climb and put in powerful display to ride away from Stage 15 winner Jarlinson Pantano (IAM) and mountains jersey wearer Rafal Majka (Tinkoff). He had enough time in the bank by the top to take his time zipping up his jersey before crossing the line.

Zakarin finished the 184km stage 55 seconds ahead of Pantano and one minute and 26 seconds in front of third placed Majka.

The action on the overall standings came later in the climb, with the attacks only really starting in earnest in the final few kilometres. Richie Porte (BMC Racing) and Chris Froome (Team Sky) emerged the strongest at the finish. The Australian moved up the leader board into sixth and Froome strengthened his grip on the top step of the podium.

The former team-mates crossed the line together, eight seconds ahead of Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange), 28 seconds in front of Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and 40 seconds ahead of Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) who retained his second place overall.

The Fight for the Stage

It was a hot pace from the gun on the stage, as no breaks were let go clear despite many attempts. At the the top of the first climb of the day, the Côte de Saanenmöser, Tanel Kangert (Astana) launched an attack, eventually being joined by 13 others, who stretched out the gap to a maximum advantage of 11 minutes and 30 seconds as the peloton behind relaxed into a tempo dictated by Team Sky. 

As the break got closer and closer to the final climbs of the day it became increasingly apparent that the win would be contested from among the escapeed. The attacks began to start in earnest once they reached the Category 1 Col de la Forclaz. Tony Gallopin (Lotto Soudal) made a foray off the front only for Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) to counter and pass him.

Neither really got a gap of significance over their breakaway companions and instead it was Majka and Pantano who forged clear. They made it to the bottom of the final climb to Finhaut-Emosson together, but soon found themselves with company as a determined Zakarin bridged the gap. The Russian then settled before surging away, with Pantano initially following until he found himself unable to maintain the furious pace of the Katusha rider.

The race for the stage was effectively decided there and then, with Zakarin winning with a comfortable buffer over Pantano, whilst Majka finished in third and extended his advantage in the mountains classification to an almost insurmountable 83 point lead with three days in the mountains remaining.

It’s been three weeks that I’ve been focused and motivated to win here in the Tour de France,” said Zakarin, who left the Giro with a broken collarbone with two stages to go, while he was in fifth place.

“After the crash in the Giro I was so disappointed. First of all because I was aiming for the final podium and to lose all of that in the last few days was very hard. So I began to think of the Tour so perhaps I could win a stage here,” he said.

“I am really happy with this victory. It means a lot for me, especially after my crash at the Giro d'Italia. I wanted to build up my form for the last week of the Tour and I did it. I feel good. But also, I wanted to prepare for the Olympics in Rio. Now I am really happy!

“I know this is the first Russian victory since 2009, so now it is time to renew old records and achievements,” said Zakarin.   

General Classification battle

As the break worked to get a race-winning advantage, the Sky train were quite happy to maintain a steady pace behind into the base of the Col de la Forclaz. That was where one of the other teams decided to take up the challenge and Astana went to the front, looking to make use of the pair of riders that they placed in the break, Lutsenko and Kangert. 

Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) in particular was doing strong work for his team leader, leading the main bunch over the top of the Forclaz, through the descent and a long way up to Finhaut-Emosson before swinging off. Between his efforts and those of Diego Rosa and Jakob Fuglsang (both Astana), the main bunch had been whittled down to just the top favourites. However it wasn't enough to break the Sky train, who still had three riders there in support of Froome when the last man, Rosa, pulled off exhausted and Astana leader Fabio Aru thought twice about attacking as would be normal in that situation.

Instead, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) tried a few surges, which managed to drop a few riders, before he himself slipped off the rear of the group. The expected fireworks didn't materialise until the final few kilometres of the climb.

Porte led off the attacks, jumping clear and not provoking any immediate reaction from Froome and his Sky team. When no-one opted to follow Porte's move, Froome must have seen this as a sign of weakness, as he attacked to strengthen his own position at the top of the leader board.

Initially the attack was covered by Quintana but once the yellow jersey kicked again, it was clear that the diminutive Colombian didn't have the legs to follow, eventually being caught and passed by others lower than him on the standings. Second placed Mollema also felt the pain at the top of the climb and his previous heroics on Mont Ventoux looked like a faint memory as he was ejected out the back of the front group, though he rallied to maintain his overall ranking.

Froome made it up to the Australian's wheel with the superb help of team-mate Wout Poels and with Porte gaining time on all his major rivals except Froome, he opted to let his former team-mate sit in his wheel as he ground his way to the line. This was probably for the best as counter-attacks from Romain Bardet (AG2R) and Yates behind came close to catching the pair before the finish.  

The big loser on the day was Tejay van Garderen (BMC), who was dropped on the Col de la Forclaz and tumbled from 8th down to 17th overall. The time loss might well work to the advantage of Richie Porte, who may be able to utilise the strength of van Garderen in the closing stages of the Tour.

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