Pierre Rolland of France won the hardest Alpine stage in the Tour de France on Thursday, and Bradley Wiggins dusted defending champion Cadel Evans in the final climb to extend his overall lead.
Rolland gave the Europcar team its second straight stage win after the 148-kilometre 11th stage from Albertville that ended with a grueling ascent to the ski resort of La Toussuire.
In collecting his second Tour stage victory after another tough uphill finish last year at the fabled Alpe d’Huez, Rolland won by 55 seconds over countryman Thibaut Pinot and third-placed Christopher Froome of Britain. Wiggins and two rivals for the title — Jurgen Van Den Broeck of Belgium and Vincenzo Nibali of Italy — were a further two seconds slower.
“I’d been dreaming about this stage for six months ... I got all sorts of messages this morning saying ‘it’s your turn, it’s your turn,“’ said Rolland. “My second victory in the Alps in two years — I don’t have the words to describe the feeling.”
He won even after skidding to the ground in a crash during the last big downhill.
“That’s not going to stop me,” he said.
Wiggins, along with Froome and other Sky teammates, repelled repeated attacks by his yellow jersey rivals over three huge ascents. Evans fell from second place overall — possibly seeing his repeat title hopes vanish — after finishing 11th in the stage and losing another 1 minute,:26 seconds to Wiggins.
Evans began the day 1:53 behind Wiggins.
Wiggins said he felt “relief” in the last few kilometres that the hardest Alpine stage was nearly over, especially knowing that Evans had been dropped — an outcome the Briton had not expected.
The route was brutal, with at least 65 kilometres 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.
Treachery awaited on a winding downhill from the Mollard pass — the day’s third climb — where Rolland unclipped from his pedal and hit the ground on a sharp turn, but he quickly got back on his bike.
One crucial moment, possibly with the title hanging in the balance, 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 in cycling parlance, the Sky “train” of riders, in a line and pedaling almost in sync, powered with a steady rhythm to escort Wiggins back up front, and gradually erased the Australian’s getaway about five kilometres later.
On the last climb, Van Den Broeck, and then Nibali, gave it their own tries. This time, Wiggins was more vulnerable because his Sky 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 kept back to help his team leader as best he could. Crossing the line, Evans let out a sigh.
Froome, meanwhile, accelerated in a dramatic final dash — surpassing his team leader Wiggins. The Sky leader said later that such a move was in the plan, so that Kenyan-born Froome — who started the stage in third — could cut into his deficit to 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-kilometre ride from Saint-Jean-De-Maurienne to Annonay Davezieux.