Playful Pole wins Tour stage, as Nibali marches on

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Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali, wearing the overall leader’s yellow jersey, celebrates on the podium of the sixteenth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 237.5 kilometers (147.6 miles) with start in Carcassonne and finish in Bagneres-de-Luchon, France, Tuesday, July 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali, wearing the overall leader’s yellow jersey, celebrates on the podium of the sixteenth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 237.5 kilometers (147.6 miles) with start in Carcassonne and finish in Bagneres-de-Luchon, France, Tuesday, July 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Poland’s Rafal Majka crosses the finish line to win the seventeenth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 124.5 kilometers (77.4 miles) with start in Saint-Gaudens and finish in Saint-Lary, France, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Poland’s Rafal Majka crosses the finish line to win the start of the seventeenth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 124.5 kilometers (77.4 miles) with start in Saint-Gaudens and finish in Saint-Lary, France, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Poland’s Rafal Majka crosses the finish line to win the start of the seventeenth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 124.5 kilometers (77.4 miles) with start in Saint-Gaudens and finish in Saint-Lary, France, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

France’s Jean-Christophe Peraud tries to break away from Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali, wearing the overall leader’s yellow jersey, during the seventeenth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 124.5 kilometers (77.4 miles) with start in Saint-Gaudens and finish in Saint-Lary, France, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

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PLA D’ADET, France (AP) — On the last of four Pyrenees ascents, Rafal Majka winked at a French TV camera and tugged playfully at a motorcycle’s antenna.

Even this late in the Tour de France, the Polish rider made winning look easy as he took Stage 17 on Wednesday.

For Vincenzo Nibali, the second ride in the mountains on France’s border with Spain was more serious. “The Shark” nibbled yet more seconds away from several of his closest challengers, and the yellow jersey that he’s worn for all but two days of this race seemed to fit just a little more tightly ahead of Sunday’s race finish in Paris.

Nibali was even businesslike with his own prime minister, imploring him not to get too ahead of himself in celebration.

“It’s true that I received a text message from Matteo Renzi, who invited me to Chigi Palace to celebrate my victory,” said the cautious Sicilian of the premier’s official residence. “I replied that only after winning — if I do so — I’ll be able to say that I’ll be present.”

Wednesday’s 124.5-kilometer (77-mile) trek was the shortest stage in this year’s Tour. It covered three hard Category 1 ascents from Saint-Gaudens and a final push up to Pla d’Adet ski station above the town of Saint-Lary-Soulan.

Majka, who also won Stage 14 in the Alps, again showed he’s the best climber in this Tour and tightened his grip on the polka dot jersey, which is awarded to the race’s King of the Mountains.

Giovanni Visconti got the action going on the last climb, but his solo breakaway with about nine kilometers (5-1/2 miles) left could not hold off Majka. Visconti, who is also Sicilian, was second, 29 seconds back, and Nibali was third, 46 seconds behind.

With a last Pyrenean day ahead Thursday, Majka could ensure that he takes the red-dot jersey home. His closest rival for it when the stage started was Spain’s Joaquim Rodriguez, who swatted the air in frustration at Majka when the Pole broke away on the last climb.

Majka said he felt “comfort” in the last five kilometers in part because he’d been saving up energy a day earlier by riding easier. He finished in a bunch 24-1/2 minutes behind Australian teammate Michael Rogers, who won Stage 16.

By Wednesday, “I felt really, really good in the last climb,” Majka said, after tapping his chest, thrusting his arms skyward and shouting in joy at the victory. “For me, when there are a lot of climbs, it’s the best.”

There was a time when seemingly effortless victories smacked of something more sinister at the Tour: the use of performance-enhancers.

Few know the scars of cycling’s doping past more than Majka’s own manager at the Tinkoff-Saxo Bank team, Bjarne Riis. Once a national hero in Denmark after winning the 1996 Tour, he admitted to using blood-booster EPO more than a decade later — and was vilified for it. He laid low for a while, but then returned to the pro cycling world.

“I promised Bjarne today that I would win the stage,” said Majka.

The echoes of doping resonated Wednesday on the grassy Pyrenean mountainside: The last times that Saint-Lary-Soulan hosted a Tour stage finishes were in 2001 and 2005 — won by Lance Armstrong and teammate George Hincapie. Those wins were later stripped because of doping. Their names have been crossed out in the official Tour history book.

Cycling has made great strides in fighting doping with enhanced blood and urine testing, along with the biological passport program, but few experts would claim that the peloton today is entirely clean.

Nibali, who has called himself a “flag-bearer of anti-doping”, made his latest case to become the first Italian to win cycling’s showcase race in 16 years — since Marco Pantani, who was once convicted for doping.

Nibali gained just under a minute on four of his closest rivals. Second-placed Alejandro Valverde of Spain, who made a valiant recovery on the last ascent to avoid even more damage, now trails by 5 minute, 26 seconds.

The exception was Jean-Christophe Peraud of France, who hugged closely on the leader’s back wheel and finished fourth. With his performance, the 37-year-old Frenchman made it an even closer race for the podium spots. He is fourth overall, 6:08 behind Nibali, but just eight seconds slower than fellow Frenchman

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