Sky team-mates Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome appeared uncomfortable with each other today as they rode to certain Tour de France victory up the Peyragudes climb.
An accelaration by Wiggins dropped their main rival rival Vincenzo Nibali, but once they had done that they seemed unsure of what to do next.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was up the road having attacked the escape group on the Col de Peyresourde and looked ready to clinch the stage on the short ramp up Peyragudes. In the final kilometres Wiggins and Froome looked like they could catch him, but instead they looked at each other, exchanged words, and rode with uncertainty on the Peyragudes.
Froome protected Wiggins' lead and rode at the front, but he could have gone faster still. On a few occasions he had to slow down. He looked back at Wiggins several times as if to be searching for the OK to chase Valverde and go for the stage win. Had he succeeded it would have been his second stage win and gained him extra time on Nibali who sits third overall, one place behind him.
Eventually they crossed the line together, 19 second behind Valverde. Froome took second and Wiggins third and they both put another 18 seconds in to Nibali. Froome now has a 36 second buffer over Nibali with one key stage left to race; Saturday's long time trial. Journalists circled them at the finish and asked, "What happened?"
"We were talking about Nibali. We knew he was on his limit. Chris said he wanted to go for the stage and I said yes. We weren't too sure of the time gaps," Wiggins explained.
"The moment we crossed the Peyresourde, I allowed myself to drift and that was the first time I thought maybe I've won the Tour today. All the way up that last climb my concentration had gone, everything about performance had gone. Chris was egging me on to take more time and I was in another world, really."
Froome rode to Sky's team camper parked off to the side of the finish line at 1,605 metres above sea level. He put on a warm jacket and reflected on the stage.
"It was the plan to do the job to retain the yellow jersey, to protect it," he said to French television. "Everybody makes sacrifices, [Mark] Cavendish makes sacrifices everyday, everybody in the team makes sacrifices for the yellow jersey. It's cycling, it's our sport."
Wiggins spoke about Froome's support in this Tour de France later in the press conference.
"He's been absolutely solid for me the whole Tour," Wiggins explained. "He's just one less thing to worry about. If he was in an opposing team then you'd constantly have that battle all the time. Yeah, so I think... It don't take a rocket scientist to work it out, you'd rather have him in your camp than in someone else's. He's an incredible climber."
Froome re-signed for team Sky for another three years after placing second in last year's Vuelta a España. He appeared to be the best climber in this Tour and some say that he could have won the race.
"Maybe [the chance to win] it's not going to happen again. That would be bad," Froome continued. "But I'm 27 and I hope I'll be luckier later."
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Tour de France 2012: Teams, riders, start list
Tour 2012: Who will win?
Tour de France 2012 start list and withdrawals
Tour de France 2012 team list
Tour de France 2012: Stage reports
Stage 17: Wiggins step closer to Paris as Valverde wins stage
Stage 16: Voeckler the Pyrenean king as he wins in Bagneres de Luchon
Stage 15: Fedrigo wins, day off for peloton
Stage 14: Sanchez solos to Foix victory to save Rabobank's Tour
Stage 13: Greipel survives climb and crosswinds to win third Tour stage
Stage 12: Millar wins Tour stage nine years from his last
Stage 11: Wiggins strengthens Tour lead as Evans slips back
Stage 10: Voeckler wins and saves his Tour
Stage nine: Wiggins destroys opposition in Besancon TT
Stage eight: Pinot solos to Tour win as Wiggins fights off attacks
Stage seven: Wiggins takes yellow as Froome wins stage
Stage six: Sagan wins third Tour stage
Stage five: Greipel wins again as Cavendish fades
Stage four: Greipel wins stage after Cavendish crashes
Stage three: Sagan runs away with it in Boulogne
Stage two: Cavendish takes 21st Tour stage victory
Stage one: Sagan wins at first attempt
Prologue: Cancellara wins, Wiggins second
Tour de France 2012: Comment, analysis, blogs
Analysis: What we learned at La Planche des Belles Filles
Analysis: How much time could Wiggins gain in Tour's time trials
CW's Tour de France podcasts
Blog: Tour presentation - chasing dreams and autographs
Comment: Cavendish the climber
Tour de France 2012: Photo galleries
Stage 17 by Graham Watson
Stage 16 by Graham Watson
Stage 15 by Graham Watson
Stage 14 by Graham Watson
Stage 13 by Graham Watson
Stage 12 by Graham Watson
Stage 11 by Graham Watson
Stage 10 by Graham Watson
Stage nine by Graham Watson
Stage eight by Graham Watson
Stage seven by Graham Watson
Stage six by Graham Watson
Stage five by Graham Watson
Stage four by Graham Watson
Stage three by Graham Watson
Stage two by Andy Jones
Stage two by Graham Watson
Stage one by Graham Watson
Prologue photo gallery by Andy Jones
Prologue photo gallery by Roo Rowler
Prologue photo gallery by Graham Watson
Tour de France 2012: Team presentation
Sky and Rabobank Tour de France recce
Tour de France 2012: Live text coverage
Stage 17 live coverage
Stage 16 live coverage
Stage 12 live coverage
Stage 11 live coverage
Stage 10 live coverage
Stage nine live coverage
Stage six live coverage
Stage five live coverage
Stage four live coverage
Stage three live coverage
Cycling Weekly's live text coverage schedule
Tour de France 2012: TV schedule
ITV4 live schedule
British Eurosport live schedule
Tour de France 2012: Related links
Brits in the Tours: From Robinson to Cavendish
Brief history of the Tour de France
Tour de France 2011: Cycling Weekly's coverage index
1989: The Greatest Tour de France ever
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