Movistar Team rider Alejandro Valverde of Spain cycles during the 17th stage of the 99th Tour de France cycling race between Bagneres-de-Luchon and Peyragudes, July 19, 2012. (REUTERS/Stephane Mahe)

By Gilles Le Roc’h

PEYRAGUDES, France, July 19 (Reuters) – Alejandro Valverde celebrated his return to the Tour de France after a three-year absence when he won the last mountain stage in Peyragudes on Thursday.

The Spaniard, suspended for his implication in the Operation Puerto doping scandal in May 2010, broke on his own in the Port de Bales, the penultimate climb of the 143.5-kms 17th stage, to clinch the fourth stage victory of his career.

Valverde, 32, clinched a mountain stage in Courchevel in 2005 and nailed two more in his last participation in 2008, when he held the yellow jersey for two days.

Valverde crossed the finish line in the Pyrenean ski resort of Peyragudes 18 seconds ahead of Britons Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins, who tightened their grip on the overall standings by dropping their rivals in the final climb of this Tour.

Froome led his Team Sky leader all the way to the finish line and looked so strong he would probably have caught Valverde had he not sacrificed his chances for Wiggins, whom he still trails by 2:05 overall.

Third-placed Vincenzo Nibali was unable to follow the pace in the finale and lost 19 seconds to the British pair – he now lies 2:42 behind in the general classification.

France’s Thomas Voeckler, winner of the previous stage in Bagneres de Luchon, secured the King of the Mountains polka-dot jersey by finishing first at the top of the first three climbs of the day.

Friday’s 222.5-km 18th stage takes the peloton back on flat terrain between Blagnac and Brive la Gaillarde.