Unflappable Wiggins Cements Lead at Tour
Try as they might, rivals of Bradley Wiggins just can't wrest away his Tour de France leader's yellow jersey.
The three-time Olympic track gold-medalist, vying to become Britain's first winner of the Tour, beat back repeated attacks on Thursday in a crucial Alpine stage won by ace French climber Pierre Rolland.
As Stage 11 began, Wiggins' main challengers were planning to try to unsettle him in the 148-kilometer trek along three big climbs from the 1992 Winter Olympics town of Albertville to La Toussuire ski station.
First, defending champ Cadel Evans took a shot at Wiggins on the longest climb — a tactic that some questioned. On the way to the uphill finish, Belgium's Jurgen Van Den Broeck tried too. Then Vincenzo Nibali did, twice.
Each time, Wiggins steadily, meticulously reeled them in.
Evans petered out early: The 35-year-old Australian was dropped by Wiggins and others who finished nearly a minute behind Rolland. Evans began the day in second place, but finished 1 minute, 26 seconds behind Wiggins and fell to fourth overall. He's now 3:19 back.
The Briton also dispensed with Russia's Denis Menchov, who had won the Spanish Vuelta twice and the Italian Giro once, and began the day 3:02 back in fifth place — but lost more than 13 minutes to Wiggins.
Overall, Wiggins now leads Sky teammate Christophe Froome, who rose to second, by 2:05, and Nibali trails in third, 2:23 back. Van Den Broeck is fifth — 4:48 behind.
Wiggins also patched things up with Nibali, who a day earlier hadn't taken kindly to a seeming glare from the Sky leader. As they finished together Thursday, Wiggins gave him a peace-making pat on the back.
The Alpine stage shaped up as a pivotal moment because mountains and time trials tend to determine who wins the Tour. Wiggins' rivals saw it as their big chance to strike. He looks unstoppable in the time trials: He won one on Monday, and another one awaits on the day before the July 22 finish in Paris. His rivals' last opportunity could be in another uphill finish in the Pyrenees next Thursday.
Rolland, a 25-year old Europcar rider, gave his team its second straight stage victory, and his second in two years — after winning on the fabled Alpe d'Huez last year.
The joy of victory contrasted with "immense pain" Rolland felt weeks earlier. Two days before the Tour start, a French sports daily revealed a previously unknown probe of his team over allegations of improper use of a controlled corticoid in the 2011 Tour. The team denies the claim.
But fans in Belgium — where the race began June 30 — jeered at some Europcar riders, and Rolland said he was spat on.
"The evening after the prologue I was really down," he said. "I told myself: 'If that's what the Tour is all about, I'd rather go home.'" He said the fans' reaction at home in France has been more charitable.
And yet another doping controversy — like the many that have battered cycling's image in recent years — lingered in the background Thursday.
Judicial officials in southern Marseille said Remy Di Gregorio, a Cofidis rider, was placed under investigation Thursday as part of a doping probe. He was arrested at a team hotel Tuesday, and is suspected of illegal possession of doping products or equipment.
Just as the sport has had to repeatedly pick itself up from scandals, Rolland had to pick himself up Thursday — after a crash on a winding downslope from the stage's third climb. He unclipped from his pedal and hit the ground on a sharp turn, but quickly got back on his bike.
The route was brutal, with at least 65 kilometers of climbs in total, over two of the most grueling ascents in pro cycling, plus a very tough uphill finish.
Under relentless sun, riders' faces bore climbing agony: Tongues wagging, teeth gritting, mouths agape or, as in the case of American veteran Christopher Horner, a smile — perhaps in pain.
One crucial moment came when Evans took a chance and tried to shake Wiggins, about halfway up the 2,060-meter (6,750-foot) Croix de Fer — or Iron Cross — pass.
The Australian caught up with BMC teammate Tejay Van Garderen, a promising American rider, and was able to chisel out a lead of about 15 seconds on Wiggins.
But the Sky "train" of riders, in a line and pedaling almost in sync, powered with a steady rhythm to escort Wiggins back up to the front, and gradually erased the Australian's getaway about five kilometers later.
Some of Evans' rivals questioned his tactic of attacking on the Iron Cross — whose peak was 55 kilometers from the finish, far enough away to give Wiggins and company the space they would need to recover.
"I was a bit surprised he attacked on the Glandon because there was a hell of long way to go from there and we were already riding a pretty strong tempo," said Wiggins, referring to a patch on the Iron Cross.
On the last climb, Van Den Broeck and then Nibali made their own attempts to put a gap on Wiggins. This time, the Brit was more vulnerable because his teammates — aside from Froome — had fallen back. But Wiggins caught them, too.
Evans, seemingly spent by his earlier attack, lost ground, unable to keep up with Van Garderen, who dutifully stayed back to help his team leader as best he could. Crossing the line, Evans let out a sigh.
Evans didn't speak after the stage but John Lelangue, the BMC team manager, said his star rider was "disappointed of course" and acknowledged that Evans's title defense was "getting more and more complicated."
Van Garderen said he was ready to help Evans speed ahead on the final climb.
"Before he lost contact, I was saying, 'Hey, if you have the legs you should go because Wiggins is looking a little isolated,'" Van Garderen said, "and then next thing you know he (Evans) was coming off the back."
"And I was like, 'Oh man, this wasn't the plan,'" he added.
Froome, meanwhile, accelerated in a dramatic final dash — surpassing Wiggins. The Sky leader said such a move was in the team plan, so that Kenyan-born Froome — who had been third — could take time on Evans.
"At that moment, I was really just really concentrating on my effort and keeping it constant," Wiggins said.
The race stays in the Alps on Friday with a 226-kilometer ride from Saint-Jean-De-Maurienne to Annonay Davezieux.