Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky kept a tight grip on the race lead in the hardest Alpine stage of the Tour
Words by Edward Pickering in Chambéry
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Thursday July 12, 2012
The mighty edifice that Team Sky has constructed in the course of this Tour de France still towers over everybody in the race. But while the foundations and walls still look impregnable, the hardest stage in the race so far gave us the slightest hint of structural unsoundness in the penthouse suite.
Sky were forced on the defensive today, and for long periods, up and over huge mountains, they looked to be the equal of everything their rivals could throw at them. The British team’s climbing domestiques kept their foot on the throat of the race all the way to the final ascent, to La Toussuire, with Edvald Boasson Hagen and Michael Rogers riding interminable, astonishing turns on the front of the yellow jersey group.
But on La Toussuire, Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins got their tactics wrong. Froome, who’s doing a very fine impression of being the strongest climber in the Tour, did to Wiggins what none of his rivals have managed so far, attacking and inadvertantly putting the yellow jersey in momentary trouble. If Wiggins has a weakness, it’s sudden accelerations in the mountains, and Froome was sharply called to heel, presumably getting an earful of team orders over the race radio, while Wiggins slowly regained his composure and the shelter of the group.
And again, at the finish, Froome sprinted exuberently through the last 500 metres, with Wiggins visibly struggling, then failing, to hold his wheel. Froome is looking ostentatiously strong, although there was no significant damage in terms of time. In fact, with Cadel Evans faltering on the climb, the Sky duo now hold first and second overall.
With the worst of the Alps behind the Tour, David Brailsford has the luxury of knowing that nobody else in the race looks capable of hurting Wiggins. Only Froome. And for the moment, he is on a tight leash.
Ahead of Sky’s brewing psychodrama, Pierre Rolland was taking an impressive stage win, the second in a row for Europcar and his second at an Alpine summit finish after his win at Alpe d’Huez last year. The French team gave an object lesson in tactical riding and management of resources that was even more impressive than Sky’s, putting multiple riders into the early break, then burning them up until Rolland was left to apply the coup de grâce. With two days to go until Bastille Day, the French are getting their celebrations in early.
For the third road stage in a row, the early break numbered more than 20 riders, with a huge group of 28 riders coalescing up the Col de la Madeleine. Sky’s grip on the Tour is tight, but they are gambling that the mountains will do a lot of the dirty work of keeping breaks under control.
But the group looked dangerous. In it: Ivan Basso of Liquigas, Chris Horner of RadioShack and BMC’s Amaël Moinard. None have been riding particularly strongly in this Tour, but the options for their team leaders to bridge to them and attack were obvious. There were also several riders with strong personal agendas: Garmin’s Daniel Martin and Astana’s Fredrik Kessiakoff (who had team-mates Robert Kiserlovski and Alexandre Vinokourov with him) have both shown an interest in the mountains jersey, with today offering up to 75 points in total. While Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, Michele Scarponi of Lampre and Levi Leipheimer of Omega were former Grand Tour favourites looking to salvage some late-career glory in France.
But Europcar were the architects of the break’s success. On the Madeleine, Davide Malacarne set a strong pace, which drew the group three minutes clear of the peloton, which was being paced by Edvald Boasson Hagen. The group was slowly eroded from the back, until Kessiakoff and Velits followed through at the summit sprint and drew another six riders clear into the valley, before half a dozen more joined at the bottom of the Croix de Fer.
On the Croix de Fer, which was approached via the Col du Glandon, Europcar and Sky switched personel. With Malacarne and Boasson Hagen spent, Christophe Kern took over for the French team, while Christian Knees led the dwindling yellow jersey group for Sky.
The pattern for the day looked like it was set, until BMC threw a hand grenade into the Tour by first sending Tejay Van Garderen on the attack early on the Croix de Fer, followed almost immediately by Cadel Evans. The two quickly linked up, then caught up with Moinard, to form a three-man team time trial in no-man’s land between the break and the yellow jersey group. It was a clever and bold move.
But BMC were still outnumbered. Their three were being pursued by a quartet of Sky riders – Michael Rogers, Richie Porte, Froome and Wiggins. Moinard faltered, and then BMC had their own temporary transfer of power within the team: Van Garderen was clearly stronger than Evans, and his tempo hurt the Australian.
The impact of Rogers’ pursuit on the yellow jersey group was enormous. Only four others were strong enough to hang on in the wake of the four Sky riders: Nibali, Jurgen Van den Broeck, Janez Brajkovic and stage eight winner, the youngest rider in the race, Thibaut Pinot.
The stage was an object lesson in team riding. Europcar were using team tactics to try and win the stage, BMC were doing the same to try and win the yellow jersey, while Sky did so to defend it.
BMC threw themselves at Sky like waves at a cliff, but they were beaten back. Rogers closed the gap on Evans, who, tellingly, rode up the remained of the Croix de Fer at the back of the group, visibly cowed.
And while Rolland whittled the lead group down to four riders at the start of the climb to La Toussuire, then two, then striking out on his own with 10 kilometres to the finish, Sky’s leaders were finally exposed. The British teams’ rivals tested the Sky domestiques to exhaustion, with Porte finally breaking under the strain of a counterrattack by Vincenzo Nibali behind Van den Broucke, Pinot and Brajkovic. Now the race could begin.
Froome paced Wiggins back to the Nibali group, and it looked like stalemate. Evans and RadioShack were the biggest losers, with the defending champion getting dropped and finishing almost a minute and a half behind Froome, while the American team had four riders near the front, yet managed to get only one rider, Frank Schleck, into the top 10 on the stage.
But while it looks almost certain that a Sky rider will win in Paris, the Tour is now asking the question, will it be the guy in the yellow jersey, or the other, stronger-looking, guy?