July 19 (Bloomberg) -- Bradley Wiggins moved a step closer to becoming Britain’s first Tour de France winner after twice repelling mountain attacks by Vincenzo Nibali. Defending champion Cadel Evans all but dropped out of contention.
Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler was the first over four Pyrenees mountain passes to win the 122-mile (197-kilometer) 16th stage yesterday that ended with a descent to Bagneres de Luchon. He finished 1 minute, 40 seconds ahead of Chris Anker Sorensen. Euskaltel’s Gorka Izaguirre was third.
Wiggins is 2 minutes, 5 seconds ahead of Team Sky teammate Chris Froome before today’s final mountain stage -- the 17th of 21 days racing -- that ends with a climb to the Peyragudes ski resort. Nibali of Liquigas is 18 seconds further back in third.
“As a team we passed the test again,” Wiggins, who took the lead after stage seven, told reporters. “We’ve created the ideal scenario by putting more time into Cadel Evans and although we weren’t able to get rid of Nibali -- who is very strong -- it was a great day.”
Evans, who said he began suffering from a stomach upset before yesterday’s stage, struggled on the last two climbs and finished almost five minutes behind Wiggins. He dropped to seventh overall from fourth and is 8:06 behind the leader.
“There’s no way to get back that time,” Evans’s BMC Racing teammate Tejay van Garderen told reporters. “It’s never going to happen.”
On the last of the four ascents, to the Col de Peyresourde, Nibali darted ahead of Wiggins with about 2.5 miles of climbing left. Froome helped Wiggins close the Italian’s 100-meter (328-foot) advantage within a few minutes.
Nibali attacked again nearer the summit and this time Wiggins managed to follow his wheel on his own, with Froome just behind. The top three in the overall standings crossed the finishing line together.
In 30 degree Celsius (86 degree Fahrenheit) heat, riders tackled almost 36 miles of climbing.
They doused themselves in water and rode with shirts flapping open as they climbed the out-of-category Col d’Aubisque and Col du Tourmalet before traversing the slightly smaller Aspin and Peyresourde climbs.
“It was hot out there today, probably the hottest we’ve had on the Tour,” Wiggins said.
A 38-rider breakaway built a lead of about five minutes on the main pack on the first mountain, although it splintered on Tourmalet where Voeckler and Saur-Sojasun’s Brice Feillu broke away from the rest.
The French pair had a 40-second lead on Garmin’s Dan Martin on the third climb, which they extended as the Irish rider toiled.
Voeckler took the sole lead with about 3 miles of the final climb remaining, leaving Feillu behind. He zipped down the final descent and won his second stage of this month’s race for a fourth career victory on the Tour.
He also took possession of the polka-dot jersey as the race’s top-ranked climber.
“It was four races within a race,” Voeckler said of the mountain ascents. “I don’t know if it was my most beautiful stage win -- it’s difficult to classify them -- but I’m very proud.”
Evans dropped behind Wiggins about a mile from the top of the third mountain. He managed to fight his way back before lagging again on the final ascent.
The 35-year-old Australian touched hands with BMC Racing teammate George Hincapie as they crossed the line together to thank him for his support.
“It’s pretty much Tour de France over for me,” Evans said. “Obviously this year things haven’t been coming together.”
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