Tour de France rode into the Alps, where it became abundantly clear that Vincenzo Nibali is the strongest rider in the peloton, and in complete control of the race. When the riders hit the long, steep slopes of the mountains, the Italian flashed displays of strength and endurance, even as his closest rivals faded away. With five stages yet to go, including several big days in the Pyrenees, this is Nibali's race to lose, and barring any unforeseen problems, he will ride into Paris in the Maillot Jaune and take a victory lap on the Champs Élysées.
But their is still some drama and glory left to play out in Le Tour. There are stage victories to be claimed, a long individual time trial to be overcome, and several other jerseys still up for contention. That was exactly the mood amongst the riders as they took off on today's 237.5 km (147.5 miles) Stage 16, running from Carcassonne to Bagnères-de-Luchon, which featured tough climbs, but a very fast downhill descent to the finish. It was a day for a breakaway to survive, provided some climbers could get over the final Beyond Category climb, then sprint to the end. That is exactly what happened, as Aussie rider Michael Rogers found his first success in the Tour de France after riding in the race for ten years. He finished nine seconds ahead of a group of riders, that included Thomas Voeckler, Vasili Kiryienka, and Cyril Gautier, who had jousted with one another across the final kilometers of the course.
The first day in the Pyrenees have already had an impact on the overall standings for the General Classification. Nibali didn't surrender any time to those who have been chasing him, and made sure that he kept Alejandro Valverde, currently riding in second place, in his sights at all time. But French rider Thibaut Pinot managed to climb up to third place however, as Roman Bardet and Tejay Van Garderen lost ground in the mountains and gave up significant amounts of time. As it stands now, Valverde is 4'37" behind Nibali, with two more big mountain stages looming.
In the battle for the Green Jersey, Peter Sagan has an almost unassailable lead in the sprints point category, and he looks to be almost assured of riding into Paris in green for the third straight year.
Polish rider Rafal Majka now leads in the King of the Mountains competition for the top climber, but there are still plenty of points to be earned in that category, and there are a number of riders who could still win the Polka Dot Jersey. Finally, with his solid riding today, Thibaut Pinot has now claimed the White Jersey as the Tour's best young rider. If he can hold on to a podium position, he'll go home with that award as well.
Tomorrow's Stage 17 promising to be a tough one. It is just 124.5 km (77.3 miles) in length, but features three Category 1 climbs, followed by a Beyond Category climb to the finish line. To say it will be a brutal day would be an understatement, and we could see further shake ups in the GC tomorrow. The route begins in Saint-Gaudens and ends in Saint-Lary Pla d'Adet, and we could see some incredibly dramatic scenes play out on the big slopes of the Pyrnees.
Thursday won't be much easier either, as the riders will face the infamous Tourmalet – perhaps the most difficult climb in the history of the Tour. But first, they must survive tomorrow's grueling day, just to get the opportunity to test their legs on the hallowed slopes of that mountain. The next two days are ones you won't want to miss, that much is certain.