Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) soloed to victory on the Pla d’Adet while wearing the polka dot jersey to record the second stage win of his debut Tour de France.
The 24-year-old Pole profited from the superb work of team-mate Nicolas Roche as the two accelerated away from their former breakaway companions, including Majka’s rival for the polka dot jersey, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), on the run-in to the brutal hors categorie climb.
And Majka caught and passed lone leader Giovanni Visconti (Movistar) on the steep ramps of the day’s final climb to crest the summit finish alone and follow team-mate Michael Rogers’ success the previous day.
Meanwhile, yellow jersey Vincenzo Nibali accelerated away from an ever-decreasing group of GC men to take third on the stage and stretch his overall lead even further.
The stage in detail
As with stage 16, the day was characterised by attacks from the off with veteran Jens Voigt (Trek Factory Racing) in the first group to attempt to break clear.
On a stage set to be pivotal in the final destination of the polka dot jersey, Katusha immediately set about reeling the group back in for Joaquim Rodriguez, who had missed the break.
It made for a furious start to the day, with an average speed of more than 50km/h in the first hour of racing as Katusha strung the bunch right out.
Voigt’s group up the road had no shortage of fire power themselves, with Tom-Jelte Slagter (Garmin-Sharp) and Cyril Gautier (Team Europcar) also part of the break.
But with Rodriguez determined to reclaim his polka dot jersey, the race had almost come back together as they hit the Col du Portillon, with Purito seizing his opportunity to make the junction as the road started to head skyward.
It prompted another series of counter-attacks from the bunch, with Nicolas Roche (Tinkoff-Saxo), Alessandro de Marchi (Cannondale) and Bauke Mollema (Belkin Pro Cycling) also heading up the road.
Polka dot jersey holder Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), Vasil Kiryienka (Team Sky) – who played a big part in the stage 16 break – and Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol) were also in the group which numbered 22 as they finally earned a small lead over the peloton.
Kiryienka, with his stage 16 exploits fresh on the mind, burst clear of the group on the Col de Peyresourde, quickly putting a sizable distance into his breakaway companions.
The Belarussian, whose gritty ride on the Port de Bales yesterday had earned him third place on the stage, climbed with a steady rhythm and looked at ease as his move earned a gap of 1’45” over the pursuing group.
Behind him, Mollema, Roche and Jesus Herrada (Movistar) also accelerated on the punishing category one climb. Kiryienka was still clear on the category one Val Louron but, where he had looked to be pushing an easy rhythm on the Peyresourde, the hurt was clearly starting to kick in.
His effort became more rugged and his rhythm abandoned him as the pursuing group – led by Roche – closed in behind, and the catch was made just short of the summit, allowing Rodriguez to snatch more King of the Mountains points as he led from Majka over the top.
Further back, having been bunched together with no desire of chasing, the pace in the peloton was also upped, particularly when Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) attacked on the descent.
An elite group of riders, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) and Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale) among them, were just behind. Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) also stayed in contention as the yellow jersey group was stripped down to size as Bardet looked to claw back the time he lost on stage 16.
With neither Nibali nor Valverde chasing, it was left to white jersey Pinot and team-mate Arnold Jeanesson (FDJ.fr) to bring him back.
Back at the front of the race, Giovanni Visconti (Movistar) went for a long one, accelerating off the front of an ever-decreasing front group with nine kilometres to go.
It meant the Italian hit the lower slopes of the Pla d’Adet alone, boasting a lead of close to half a minute over Roche, Majka, Rolland and Amael Moinard (BMC Racing).
Roche, who had made earlier attempts of his own to break free, was happy to play the ultimate team role for Majka in the group, realising they were distancing Rodriguez.
Roche’s effort presented Majka with the opportunity to make the junction to Rodriguez, and the Polish ace did not need asking twice.
Bursting clear off the front of the group, his lone chase soon had him alongside Visconti at the front as the two ploughed on up the brutal gradients of the climb after a brief discussion.
Further back, Bardet’s effort was reeled in by FDJ.fr, prompting Peraud to accelerate on the front instead, and Nibali, as ever, matching the move.
Nibali’s attacks, with Peraud on his wheel, saw Valverde distanced as the yellow jersey made its way up through the remnants of the breakaway group, and Peraud remained glued to his wheel on every acceleration.
Majka, at the front, left Visconti trailing in his wake with a sudden, unmatchable, change of pace with 2.2km to go.
Winking at the cameras, Majka led solo under the flamme rouge as Nibali pressed on behind him, and Peraud continuing to prove unshakeable.
At the front Majka couldn’t be stopped, however, urging the crowds to cheer louder as he zipped up his polka dot jersey and celebrated his second stage win of this year’s race.
Visconti held on to take second, before Nibali led Peraud home to further boost his overall ambitions.
A resurgent Valverde pressed on in the final kilometre, meanwhile, even gaining a handful of seconds on Pinot, Bardet and van Garderen as he accelerated away from his rivals in the final metres to snatch tenth on the day.
Tour de France 2014: stage 17 – result
1) Rafal Majka (POL) – Tinkoff-Saxo – 3.35.23hrs
2) Giovanni Visconti (ITA) – Movistar +29”
3) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Astana +46”
4) Jean-Christophe Peraud (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale – ST
5) Alessandro de Marchi (ITA) – Cannondale +49”
6) Pierre Rolland (FRA) – Team Europcar +52”
7) Frank Schleck (LUX) – Trek Factory Racing +1.12
8) Bauke Mollema (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling – ST
9) Nicolas Roche (IRL) – Tinkoff-Saxo – 1.25
10) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +1.35
1) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Astana – 76.41.28hrs
2) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +5.26
3) Thibaut Pinot (FRA) – FDJ.fr +6.00
4) Jean-Christophe Peraud (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale +6.08
5) Romain Bardet (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale +7.34
6) Tejay van Garderen (USA) – BMC Racing +10.19
7) Bauke Mollema (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling +11.59
8) Laurens ten Dam (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling +12.16
9) Leopold Konig (CZE) – Team NetApp-Endura +12.40
10) Pierre Rolland (FRA) – Team Europcar +13.15