Photo credit © Roberto BettiniCelebrating 100 years in the Pyrenees stage 17 started with rain and cold with a peloton lined up with arm warmers and embrocation to ease the elements.The crappy weather made for terrific viewing and made it feel epic.
Early on, as he was trying to get through the team cars, 3rd place Samuel Sanchez, crashed hard and looked to be out of the Tour. Fortunately, he got back up and paced by his team, rejoined the race. Wearing the yellow jersey, Alberto Contador slowed the field's pace to ensure that Sanchez could catch up.
Carlos Sastre was having none of it though and was determined to use the last day in the mountains to improve his overall placing. It didn't do him any good though, not very smart racing, and he just stuck in no man's land on the climb of the Marie-Blanque. Because of the field slowing, the breakaway's advantage quickly shot up to over 9 minutes.
As usual, some protesters interfered with the stage with about 58km to go and slowed progress up the climb of the Col du Soulor. Apparently farmers just let them run free, these particular ones were marked with blue dye on top. Crazy sheep.
Everybody was all together as they entered the town of Gaubie, then Schleck went for it just before the 10 km at 10km to go flag. Initially dropped, Samuel Sanchez caught back on to a small select group containing 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th place, with Chris Horner (team Radioshack) in the mix. Contador, content to follow the diesel train of Schleck danced out of the saddle as Schleck continued to push the pace. Kolobnev who broke away from his breakaway partners, could ride no harder and was quickly dispatched by the Yellow and White train.
5km on the attack and the also rans in the race were about 1:06 behind the two riders who had kept their eyes on each other for almost three weeks. Contador tested Andy with about 4k to go, but was answered quite handily.
Riding past streakers, crazy Basques', a bearded black santa, a masked whatever that was' in a yellow spandex body suit, and a dancing water bottle they continued to stamp out a vicious pace. As the roads narrowed the tension continued and the battle set up for who was going to win a stage. Andy won it as he rounded the corner. Alberto and him shared a handshake and then later a hug and a smile. What a day. The tour might not be done until Saturday night however, as the time trial might be another battle royale.
American Chris Horner had a career day and Canadian Ryder Hesjedal emerged from the thick mist atop the Tourmalet to cross the line fourth. Pretty amazing.