Europcar’s Pierre Rolland picked himself up off the tarmac to take a terrific win, while Cadel Evans (BMC) was the big loser, dropping off the podium and likely out of contention to take the yellow jersey in Paris.
There were numerous attacks on the Col de la Madeleine – an hors catégorie climb which kicked off a brutal day in the saddle with four categorised climbs, three of which were classified over category two. Initially there were over 20 riders in the lead group, with Sky’s Mick Rogers sitting on the front of the peloton ensuring they didn’t get too big an advantage. By the time of the second HC climb, the Col de la Croix de Fer, the group had dramatically reduced in size, but their lead had grown to over four minutes.
It was on this ascent that Evans tried an interesting move, with 64km still to go to the finish. Having sent teammate Tejay Van Garderen up the road earlier, he bridged across and join the American. But they were never able to open up a meaningful gap, and an elite chase group of the major GC contenders formed. By the time they hit the hairy descent from the second category Mollard, only four men remained out front: Pierre Rolland (Europcar), Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank), Vasili Kiryienka (Movistar) and Robert Kiserlovski (Astana).
It was pretty quickly three when Rolland rolled around a corner and off his bike. But, some even greater risks later, he rejoined, just in time for the final climb up to La Toussuire. Rogers continued to set the pace, with four Sky riders prominent at the front – including the maillot jaune Bradley Wiggins.
Almost as soon as the climb began the attacking started. Janez Brajkovic (Astana) and Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol) jumped from the Wiggins group, while Rolland managed to distance his breakaway companions out front.
With around 10km to the finish, having fittingly lurked up near the front of the Wiggins group, the ‘Shark of Messina’ Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) kicked for the first time, only to be pegged back by an impressive Chris Froome (Sky). But he was the only teammate Wiggins had left, and as Nibali attacked for a second time, he appeared to crack.
For the first time in the Tour, Wiggins looked rather isolated. But not for long. Froome astonishingly rode back up to the front of the group, and began to claw back a dangerous-looking group now containing Brajkovic, Van Den Broeck and Nibali. The pace proved to be too much for Evans, who was sent backwards, nursed by the white jersey of Van Garderen.
With just under 4km left, Froome had done the astonishing, and ridden Wiggins back to the Nibali group. What he did next, was even more startling. He rode straight through the group and attacked, leaving the race – and his team’s – leader isolated. No doubt a few expletive-filled radio transmissions later, he stood down, as everyone – bar the leading Frenchman – came back together.
Out front Rolland managed to make it a second consecutive Europcar victory, while Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) out-sprinted Froome to take second, and round off a perfect couple of days for French cycling.
VeloVoices rider of the day
With Froome and Nibali both having been nominated earlier in the Tour, today’s award must go to stage winner Pierre Rolland. A couple of years ago, the future of French cycling looked very bleak indeed. After the retirements of Richard Virenque and Christophe Moreau, there was a desperate dearth of climbing talent – until last year.
Rolland won the stage at the summit of Alpe d’Huez en route to winning the white jersey, and today confirmed his credentials with another huge performance in the mountains, despite his crash earlier in the stage. With Rolland and Pinot climbing with the best riders in the peloton, to paraphrase a certain French multinational telecommunications corporation advert: the future of French cycling is bright. The future is yellow.
After the ongoing slanging match between the pair, it was nice to see Bradley Wiggins and Vincenzo Nibali recognise each others’ efforts at the end of the stage with an on-bike embrace. Nibali let L’Équipe know in no uncertain terms what he thought of his British counterpart before the race began, with Wiggins returning the favour rather more subtly in post-stage interviews throughout.
Thus, it was nice to see a mark of mutual respect, with Wiggins recognising how hard the Italian had tried to force a gap, and Nibali how excellently Sky have ridden to defend the maillot jaune.
There’s no doubt as to who the day’s big winners and losers are. Bradley Wiggins has comfortably survived the toughest stage of this year’s Tour, whilst Cadel Evans‘ chances of taking the maillot jaune are now close to nil.
An enormous amount of credit must go to Chris Froome – without him Wiggins would have been completely isolated on today’s stage, and would most likely have lost time. But Nibali and Van Den Broeck will feel that even with his Kenyan-born teammate alongside him, they could – and should – have put time into the race leader today.
When they formed an extremely strong group with Janez Brajkovic – around 20 seconds ahead of Wiggins and Froome – they should have had the strength to open up a bigger lead. Three on-form climbers were together but didn’t seem to be riding in unison, when doing so would have had benefits for all.
No doubt there will be more opportunities for Nibali and co to make up time – but they’re fast running out of kilometres in which to do so. The way Sky fell away on the final climb will give them reason for optimism, but better racecraft is required if they are really going to put the yellow jersey under threat – especially when factoring in the final time trial.
As for the other classifications which were fought over today, Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) did enough to retake the polka dot jersey after losing it to Thomas Voeckler yesterday – although after putting in such an effort today, how long he will be able to keep it remains to be seen. Rolland may well fancy a pop, just 11 points behind in second place.
Despite aiding his ailing leader Evans, Tejay Van Garderen is still comfortably in the white jersey of best young rider, almost two minutes ahead of Thibaut Pinot. In the BMC team bus tonight I’d imagine much of the discussion will be focusing around whether Van Garderen should ride for GC position rather than helping his weaker teammate in the upcoming stages.
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