Voeckler solos to superb stage 16 win

Thomas Voeckler took a superb second stage in the Tour de France in Bagneres-de-Luchon as Bradley Wiggins consolidated his overall lead.

France’s Voeckler (Europcar) crossed all four gruelling Pyrenean climbs in the 197km stage from Pau to take a magnificent solo win and move back into the polka dot jersey.

Team Sky’s Wiggins crossed the finish line more than seven minutes later alongside team-mate Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) to retain his yellow jersey after the hardest stage of this year’s Tour.

But there was heartbreak for defending champion Cadel Evans (BMC), who was dropped on both the Col d’Aspin and the Col du Peyresourde and finished more than four minutes down on his GC rivals.

Australia’s Evans drops to seventh on the GC, one place behind his BMC team-mate Tejay van Garderen, the white jersey, and a huge 8:06 down on race leader Wiggins.

Wiggins maintains his 2:05 lead over compatriot Froome, with Nibali – who tried to distance both rivals on two occasions on the final ascent of the Col du Peyresourde – comfortably in third, at 2:23.

If the day was a nightmare for Evans then it was a dream come true for Voeckler, who picked up his second stage win of the Tour following his victory in Bellegarde-sur-Valserine in the Jura Mountains.

It was a third win for Voeckler’s Europcar team, who have now won four of the previous five mountain stages of the Tour (going back to 2011) with Voeckler and Pierre Rolland on two wins apiece.

Maximum points over all four climbs of the day – including the legendary Col du Tourmalet – gave Voeckler a slender four-point lead over Sweden’s Frederik Kessiakoff (Astana) in the polka dot jersey standings.

"I am really proud with what I have done because it’s just like the cycling races I used to watch on TV as a boy," said Voeckler. "I am in another dimension at the moment riding the way I think bike races should be ridden. Now my priority is to defend the polka dot jersey and then hopefully my Tour will be over tomorrow night."

Thirty-three-year-old Voeckler was part of an initial 38-man group that comprised of almost 25 per cent of the entire peloton. The break formed after about 20km of the stage on what was the hottest day so far in the race - with temperatures in the early 30s and the sun shining brightly in a blue sky.

The leaders had more than three minutes on the pack as they started the first climb of the day, the ‘hors categorie’ Col d’Aubisque. There was no selection on the climb, with Voeckler outsprinting Kessiakoff over the summit for maximum KOM points ahead of the other 36 riders.

Ireland’s Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) exploded the break on the second climb of the day, the Col du Tourmalet, after an early attack. The leaders regrouped but soon it was just Martin, Brice Feillu (Saur-Sojasun) and Voeckler on the front of the race.

Frenchmen Voeckler and Feillu dropped Martin towards the summit, which was crossed by Voeckler in pole position. A seven-strong chasing group formed on the descent, featuring Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff), Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), Laurens ten Dam (Rabobank), George Hincapie (BMC), Jens Voigt (RadioShack), Vasil Kiryienka (Movistar) and Martin, with five more from the initial break in pursuit, including Gorka Izagirre (Euskaltel).

By now the lead of the French duo had ballooned to 10 minutes over a peloton that seemed content to roll along with Team Sky firmly in control.

Voeckler led Feillu over the Cat.1 Col d’Aspin 46km from the finish with Voigt, Sorensen, Vinokourov and Izagirre in pursuit. The Europcar road captain then dropped 26-year-old Feillu on the final climb of the day, the Cat.1 Col du Peyresourde, as he went in search of the necessary points needed to take back the polka dot jersey that he wore for one day following his stage 10 victory exactly one week earlier.

Showing off a remarkable array of pained facial expressions, Voeckler edged through the crowds to cross the final summit with one and a half minutes on Sorensen, his lone chaser.

Riding the final 15km down to Bagneres-de-Luchon like a man possessed, Voeckler held on for a remarkable victory two years after he won when the Tour last visited the famous spa town in 2010.

Milking the crowds magnificently - and rightly so - Voeckler crossed the line 1:40 ahead of Denmark’s Sorensen, with Spaniard Izagirre pipping Kazakhstan’s Vinokourov for third, 3:22 down.

But further back, the battle for the top five had taken an interesting turn when Australia’s Evans was distanced towards the summit of the Col d’Aspin. Thanks to some sterling pace setting by three BMC team-mates – but not the white jersey Van Garderen – the defending champion managed to return onto the back of the yellow jersey group before the Col du Peyresourde.

Liquigas took matters into their own hands on the final climb of the day, finally taking over from Team Sky on the front of the main pack and setting a pace that once again proved too much for Evans. As Ivan Basso slogged away on the front, 35-year-old Evans dropped painfully back – and with it sunk his dreams of riding into Paris again in yellow.

Basso’s fast pace set up the inevitable attack by Nibali, who managed to distance both Wiggins and Froome twice on the Peyresourde. But the Team Sky pair reeled in the Italian on both occasions, the three crossing the final summit as a trio ahead of a chasing group led by Belgium’s Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto Belisol).

Nibali led the race’s three best riders over the line 7:09 down on Voeckler, 58 seconds ahead of the Van den Broeck chasing group. The Belgian rose to fourth place on the GC, 5:46 down on Wiggins, with Spain’s Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack) now fifth at 7:13.

Evans crossed the line 11:56 in arrears to drop from third to seventh in the GC after a day he will want to forget. "The team rode fantastically well again today and we've created the ideal scenario by putting even more time into Cadel Evans and although we weren't able to get rid of Nibali – who is very strong – it was a great day," said Wiggins.

The Tour continues on Thursday with a final stage in the Pyrenees and the race’s third and final summit finish at Peyragudes. The 143.5km stage 17 includes four categorised climbs and will offer third-placed Nibali a final chance to shake off the Team Sky stranglehold atop the standings.