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Alejandro Valverde fastest on 17th stage of Tour de France

BAGNERES-DE-LUCHON, France -- Bradley Wiggins overcame a big hurdle in his bid to win the Tour de France, repelling would-be attackers on the last day of mountain climbs as Spain's Alejandro Valverde won Stage 17 on Thursday.

After the last hard ascent, the Briton cemented his grasp on the yellow jersey and said he sensed “that it was pretty much over” with just three racing days left.

The 143.5-kilometer ride from the southwestern town of Bagneres-de-Luchon to the ski station of Peyragudes featured three hefty ascents in the Pyrenees and an uphill finish.

Valverde, the Movistar leader who returned from a two-year doping ban this year, won his third Tour stage in a breakaway. Christopher Froome of Britain was second, and Wiggins was third, both 19 seconds back.

Wiggins faces one last test to become the first Briton to win cycling's biggest race: Saturday's individual time trial — and that's his specialty. Flat stages await on Friday and in Sunday's ride to the finish on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, and aren't expected to alter the standings.

Overall, Wiggins leads Sky teammate Froome in second by 2 minutes, 5 seconds, and Italy's Vincenzo Nibali trails in third, 2:41 back, after losing 18 seconds to them in the final ascent.

A 2-minute lead after nearly 80 hours of racing and 2-1/2 weeks might not seem like much of a margin. But in stage races like the Tour, the strategy of success for a leader is keying on his closest rivals.

Wiggins wasn't much worried about any other riders. After Nibali and Froome, his next closest challenger was Jurgen Van Den Broeck, who was 5:46 back, a deficit almost impossible to erase without a collapse by Wiggins.

Defending champion Cadel Evans of Australia, after dropping out of contention in the first Pyrenean day on Wednesday, lost more time and trailed by 9:57. Still, he rose to sixth overall, after Spain's Haimer Zubeldia lost nearly a minute to the Australian.

American Tejay Van Garderen — a BMC teammate of Evans — rose a notch, too, to fifth, and was 8:30 back.

Valverde, with tears in his eyes in the winner's circle, had a rough start to the Tour with at least three crashes. He also sensed Wiggins and Froome closing on him at the end of the stage.

“I went all out,” said Valverde, who also won stages in the Tour Down Under and the Paris-Nice races this year. “When I saw there were only 700 meters left, I was really, really happy”.

Of his victory he said, “It erases all of the past.”

One of Sky's dilemmas was exposed on Thursday: Froome entered the day clinging to an 18-second lead over Nibali, and he was looking for any chance to gain time on the Italian.

On the final ascent to the Peyragudes, Froome tried to gain time on Nibali, but also repeatedly spoke with Wiggins and even gestured with his hand for the Sky leader to come along.

“Chris encouraged me, saying 'Come on, come on,'” Wiggins said. “He's really strong ... he can win the Tour one day.”

The fog-shrouded stage in the Pyrenees led the crash- and sickness-depleted peloton over three big climbs — including the Port de Bales, one of cycling's hardest — and two lesser ones.

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Fans run next to the leading man and stage winner, Spain's Alejandro Valverde, riding in a breakaway in the 143,5-km and 17th stage of the 2012 Tour de France cycling race starting in Bagneres-de-Luchon and finishing in the ski resort of Peyragudes, southern France, Thursday, July 19. (AFP)

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