Yesterday's toughest mountain stage of Paris-Nice saw race leader Bradley Wiggins take a huge but by no means decisive step towards becoming Britain's first outright winner of the prestigious French race since Tom Simpson back in 1967.
On the painfully steep three kilometre finishing climb to Mende airfield deep in the bleak, freezing uplands of the Massif Central, Wiggins showed himself to be every inch the leader. As his team-mates whittled down the pack to a bare half-dozen, Wiggins stayed resolutely close to the front and even briefly went on the counter-attack when stage winner Lieuwe Westra of the Netherlands sped away.
Ably supported by Sky climber Richie Porte on Mende's lower slopes, who laid down such a punishing pace that rival attacks became all but impossible, Wiggins finally crossed the line in third place, a handful of seconds behind Westra.
It was an impressive show of strength by Sky, but one which did relatively little to change the status quo prior to Mende. The Briton's overall lead on Westra remains a slender six seconds, while two other dangermen, Levi Leipheimer and Alejandro Valverde, are still at 20 seconds or less.
Barring any unexpected upsets over the next two days, Wiggins himself recognised that the time gaps are so close it is only Sunday's final 9.6 kilometre uphill time-trial on the Col d'Eze just outside Nice that will now decide the race – making for an ultra-tense final 72 hours of racing.
"Today was a day in hell because of the cold," Wiggins said. "It's not the climb I like but I have worked very hard on that this winter. The priority is still the final time-trial, but maybe we did the toughest part today."
Meanwhile in Italy, Sky had a second reason to be cheerful after Wiggins' team-mate Mark Cavendish secured a comfortable bunch-sprint win in the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race, his fourth victory of the year. The reigning world champion easily outgunned Tyler Farrar, America's top sprinter, to claim his first win in the Italian race since 2009.
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