LUCHON, France // Bradley Wiggins goes into Thursday's last climbing stage of the Tour de France with an ever tightening grip on his maiden victory after a 16th stage won in stylish fashion by the Frenchman Thomas Voeckler yesterday.
Britain's Wiggins, the yellow jersey holder, repelled a number of attacks by Vincenzo Nibali on the fourth and final climb to come over the finish with his Italian rival and Sky teammate Chris Froome around seven minutes behind a triumphant Voeckler.
"We were comfortable; I don't think he [Nibali] was really going anywhere," said Froome, who trails Wiggins by two minutes five seconds overall while Nibali is third, 2:23 adrift.
"Tomorrow is a hilltop finish so I definitely expect some fireworks there," he added.
Cadel Evans, the defending champion of BMC, finished nearly 12 minutes behind Voeckler and nearly five minutes behind the group including Wiggins after being dropped for good on the Col du Peyresourde.
It means the Australian drops from fourth overall to seventh at 8:06 behind Wiggins and probably ends his bid to defend his 2011 title.
"I had a few stomach issues before the race and when you have that two hours before there's not a lot you can do," said Evans.
"I didn't think it would affect me in the race but obviously that's not my normal level and it's pretty much the Tour de France over for me."
The 35 year old has been replaced in fourth by the Lotto team leader Jurgen Van den Broeck (5:46), with the Spaniard Haimar Zubeldia in fifth at 7:13 and his American teammate Tejay Van Garderen in sixth at 7:55.
Evans started trailing on the Col d'Aubisque, came over the summit of the penultimate climb with a 45 second deficit to Wiggins and then fought to get back on before the final climb to the summit of the Peyresourde.
Not long after the road started rising, however, the Australian lost touch with the Wiggins group when a turn of pace by Van den Broeck's teammate Jelle Vanendert split the group and just proved too much.
Voeckler, meanwhile, grabbed his second stage win of the race and the fourth of his career after leaving breakaway companion Brice Feillu of Saur-Sojasun behind with 22km remaining and 7km from the summit of the Col du Peyresourde.
Although he was countered by Saxo Bank's Chris Anker Sorensen, the Dane, who is famous for his lively grimacing as he pulls himself up the climbs, was never a threat to the Frenchman.
Sorensen eventually came over the finish nearly two minutes behind Voeckler, giving the Europcar rider plenty of time to savour his second victory in Luchon, two years after winning stage 15 in 2010.
It was also the fifth victory of the race for the hosts, following wins for Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Pierre Rolland (Europcar) and Pierrick Fedrigo (FDJ).
"For me it was like four races today," said Voeckler, who won stage 10 in Bellegarde-sur-Valserine.
"And each one was a climb. I never go and look at the stages beforehand but I've been racing these mountains since I was 19 years old.
"I knew this stage off by heart. I was leading each time I went over a mountain pass."
Voeckler's efforts meant he clocked major points at each summit, and he took over possession of the King of the Mountains' polka dot jersey from Sweden's Fredrik Kessiakoff. Today's 17th stage is a 143.5km ride from Luchon to the summit of Peyragudes.
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