Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) tamed the Pyrenees to win stage 16 of the Tour de France and reclaim the lead in the King of the Mountains classification.
The Frenchman went away in a 38-man breakaway and crossed the summits of the day’s first three climbs, the Col d’Aubisque, Col du Tourmalet and Col d’Aspin, in first place.
And Voeckler then rode away from what was left of the break on the final ascent, the Col de Peyresourde, before descending to Bagnères-de-Luchon to claim his second victory of the 2012 Tour and fourth career win at the race.
Team Sky duo Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome survived a triple attack from Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) on the Peyresourde and the trio descended to the finish in unison.
But Cadel Evans’ (BMC Racing) title defence is over after the Australian lost more than ten minutes on the final ascent, dropping from fourth to seventh overall.
Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) was the best placed rider in the large break which went away early on the 197km stage from Pau to Bagnères-de-Luchon, with the Spaniard more than 18 minutes down on Wiggins.
The group largely stayed intact on the Col d’Aubisque before Irishman Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda) initiated a move on the Tourmalet which ripped the group apart.
Brice Feillu (Saur-Sojasun) and Voeckler then forged on alone, nearly ten minutes ahead of the Team Sky-led peloton, and the French duo continued to work in partnership on the Col d’Aspin.
Martin, George Hincapie (BMC Racing), Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Nissan-Trek), Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank), Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff) and Vasili Kiryienka (Movistar) made up a group of seven riders in pursuit of the lead duo, while the remaining members of the day’s escape were swept up by the peloton.
Ivan Basso’s pace-making for Liquigas team-mate Nibali put Evans into difficulty on the Col d’Aspin and the 35-year-old crossed the summit 45 seconds adrift of the yellow jersey group.
Evans’ BMC team-mates paced him back to the Wiggins/Froome/Nibali group ahead of the final climb but the 2009 world champion was soon dropped again and this time there was no way back on the 9.5km category one ascent, with slopes at an average of 6.7 per cent.
Up ahead, Voeckler dropped Feillu on the Peyresourde, crossing the summit with a one-and-a-half minute ahead over Sorensen, now his closest rival, before embarking on a daredevil 15km descent to Bagneres-de-Luchon, lapping up the crowd’s applause in the town where he claimed his last Tour stage victory in 2010.
Back on the slopes of the Peyresourde, Nibali accelerated out of the GC group and only Froome and Wiggins were able to follow him. The Liquigas-Cannondale rider then launched a second attack but once again Froome paced Wiggins back to the Italian, while it was Wiggins who bridged the gap when Nibali tried for a third time with the summit in sight.
Nibali is renowned for his descending skills but, having tried three times to shake off Wiggins and Froome on the climb, the 27-year-old was content to defend his third place position in the overall classification and the trio crossed the line as one as Wiggins moved one step closer to becoming the first Briton to win the race.
The second and final day in the Pyrenees sees the peloton tackle a 143.km route from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Peyragudes, taking in five categorised climbs, including the hors categorie ascent of the Port de Bales and the category one summit finish to Peyragudes.
1) Thomas Voeckler (FRA) – Team Europcar 5:35:02 hours
2) Chris Anker Sörensen (DEN) – SaxoBank-Tinkoff +1’40”
3) Gorka Izaguirre Insausti (SPA) – Euskaltel-Euskadi +3’22”
4) Alexandr Vinokourov (KAZ) Astana – same time
5) Brice Feillu (FRA) – Saur-Sojasun +3’58”
6) Jens Voigt (GER) – RadioShack-Nissan-Trek +4’18”
7) Daniel Martin (IRL) – Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda +6’08”
8) Simone Stortoni (ITA) – Lampre-ISD – same time
9) Giampaolo Caruso (ITA) – Katusha
10) Laurens Ten Dam (NED) – Rabobank +6’11”
11) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) Liquigas-Cannondale +7’09”
12) Bradley Wiggins (GBR) – Team Sky – same time
13) Christopher Froome (GBR) – Team Sky
1) Bradley Wiggins (GBR) – Team Sky 74:15:32 hours
2) Christopher Froome (GBR) – Team Sky +2’05”
3) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Liquigas-Cannondale +2’23”
4) Jurgen Van Den Broeck (BEL) – Lotto-Belisol +5’46”
5) Haimar Zubeldia Agirre (SPA) – RadioShack-Nissan-Trek +7’13”
6) Tejay Van Garderen (USA) – BMC Racing +7’55”
7) Cadel Evans (AUS) – BMC Racing +8’06”
8) Janez Brajkovic (SLO) – Astana +9’09”
9) Pierre Rolland (FRA) – Team Europcar +10’10”
10) Thibaut Pinot (FRA) FDJ-BigMat +11’43”