Valverde holds off Sky and climbs to stage 17 win

Spain's Alejandro Valverde claimed a stylish solo victory in the 17th stage of the Tour de France as Bradley Wiggins admitted he now feels like a yellow jersey champion.

Wiggins, of team Sky, came over the finish line of the 143.5 km stage between Bagneres-de-Luchon and Peyragudes on the wheel of Sky teammate Chris Froome 18secs behind the Spaniard.

The pair had led a frantic chase of Valverde on the day's fifth and last climb but Valverde, who had broken away from an early escape group on the Col de Peyresourde, dug deep to hold off the British pair.

Although they failed to win the stage, their increase in pace dropped Italian Vincenzo Nibali further down the standings. From sitting 2:23 adrift overnight, he is still third but at 2:41.

With only the 53.5 km time trial on Saturday set to stand in his way, Wiggins -- who beat Froome to win the race's first big time trial on stage nine -- admitted he is now starting to feel like the race champion,

"The moment we crossed the Peyresourde (climb), I allowed myself to drift and that was the first time I thought, 'Maybe I've won the Tour today,'" said Wiggins, who finished fourth in the race in 2009.

"Once we saw Nibali had cracked on the top of the Peyresourde, we knew we weren't going to have the danger of him attacking in the final.

"At that point I knew it was pretty much over."

Valverde, who only returned to racing in January after serving a two-year doping ban, had started the race with high hopes of aiming for a top three finish in the race.

But after hitting the tarmac several times early in the race, and seeing his team decimated by other crashes, the Spaniard's objective became a stage win.

Having held a lead of 2:35 on the yellow jersey's group with the final 15 km climb to negotiate, his relief was all the more pronounced at the finish where he knew he was under threat by Froome and Wiggins.

"I knew they were behind me, I tried to go faster and so when I saw there was only 1 km to go I was very happy," said Valverde after what was his fourth Tour stage win but first since 2008.

"It's a big victory for me and my team. It's been a very difficult Tour for me, with all the crashes and drama we've been through."

Although they failed to reel Valverde in, Froome's pace, however, did some more damage with Nibali trailing home 18secs further adrift.

Defending champion Cadel Evans, who lost nearly five minutes to Wiggins on Wednesday's 16th stage to drop to seventh overall, lost more time after struggling to hold the pace inside the final few kilometres.

It means Wiggins will go into Friday's 18th stage from Blagnac to Brive-La-Gaillarde, a sprinter-friendly stage which is unlikely to host a yellow jersey battle, with his 2:05 lead on Froome intact.

For Froome, who has often upstaged Wiggins in this year's race, thoughts of a podium place are getting him excited.

"I've been watching the Tour since I was a teenager, just to be here and be in this position is already dream come true.

"To be on the podium, would be unbelievable for me."

Frenchman Thomas Voeckler, meanwhile, virtually secured the polka dot jersey for the King of the Mountains after an aggressive approach to stage 17 that saw him upstage main rival Fredrik Kessiakoff of Sweden.

"I started the stage calculating things in my head," said Voeckler, who now has an 11-point lead over the Astana rider.

"I had to stick on his wheel all day. It's not the way I like to race but I didn't have the choice."

The race finishes in Paris on Sunday.

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