Pierre Rolland returned to Tour glory Thursday, winning stage 11 at La Toussuire. Rolland (Europcar) attacked on the finish climb and rode alone to the summit ahead of Thibault Pinot (FDJ-BigMat) and Chris Froome (Sky).
Bradley Wiggins (Sky) defended his overall lead, dropping second-overall Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) high up on the Tour’s only Alpine summit finish. Froome moved into second overall, with Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) moving to third.
Wiggins now holds a 2:05 advantage over Froome, with Nibali at 2:23 and Evans down 3:19.
“It’s amazing for us. We have two victories on the Tour, they come back-to-back, and what can I say? I’m so proud,” said Europcar director Andy Flickinger. “Pierre did something amazing today and everyone did something amazing today.”
American Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), seventh overall, paced Evans after he dropped off the pace set by Froome in pursuit of an attacking Nibali on the finish climb.
“I was just trying to pace Cadel back to the leaders. On the Col de la Croix de Fer, it looked like we had Sky under pressure, but a couple of times he had trouble holding my wheel. It’s a pity he was on an off day, normally he would be the one dropping me,” said van Garderen.
“The positive takeaway is that it also looked like Sky was under pressure: Froome was dropped, Porte was also dropped on the final climb after just a kilometer of pulling, and it was the first time Wiggins was isolated. If we can do that again and Cadel’s legs come around… it’s a long way to Paris.”
With just 148 kilometers, but more than 5,000 meters of climbing on tap, the action started from the flag drop when Robert Gesink (Rabobank) attacked with Marcus Burghardt (BMC) glued to his wheel. The hors-categorie Col de la Madeleine came just 14km into the stage and by the time the race reached its base, a fluid group of between 25 and 31 riders was away.
Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Ivan Basso (Liquigas) and Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) were among the riders at the front, while Edvald Boasson Hagen and Christian Knees patrolled the front of the peloton for Sky. Martin, Peter Velits (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) were among the riders to up the pace as the group pushed its way to the summit of the 24.5km climb.
Sky stayed cool back in the bunch and finally allowed the escapees to take more than a minute’s lead near the top of the day’s first of four categorized summits. From there, the route plummeted down to La Chambre and onto the Col de la Croix de Fer, via the Col du Glandon. It was there that Evans lit what would prove to be his only match. The Aussie attacked hard, chasing onto van Garderen’s wheel, but the BMC duo couldn’t escape the grasp of Richie Porte and Michael Rogers.
“I was more surprised he attacked on the Glandon because there was a hell of a long way to go from there and we were riding pretty strong tempo with quite a few guys,” said Wiggins. “To attack and sustain a high tempo and stay away with two climbs still to go, I was surprised… It’s not something I would have had the balls to do.”
Up ahead, the break shrank to Horner, Rolland, Martin, Kessiakoff, Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank), Vasili Kiryienka (Movistar) and Robert Kiserlovski (Astana). By the time Rolland hit the summit of the Col du Mollard first, Kiryienka and Kiserlovski were the only two riders with him.
Sky led the yellow jersey group over the summit of the Croix de Fer and the Col du Mollard, en route to a showdown on the 18km, 6.1-percent La Toussuire climb.
In the breakaway, Rolland lost his front wheel and crashed on a left-hand corner midway down the super-technical Mollard, but chased back on. Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank’s Chris Anker Sørensen made contact with the three leaders before the finish climb and after a series of counter-attacks, it was Rolland who found himself alone high up on the road to La Toussuire.
Behind them, Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), Janez Brajkovic (Astana) and Nibali each attacked. The Italian’s second effort, with 6km to go, drew a hard chase from Froome and dropped Evans for good. He eventually struggled over the line in 11th, 2:23 behind Rolland and 1:26 behind Wiggins.
The Sky camp said Wednesday it expected a “war” on the Queen stage in the Alps. But for Wiggins, who was often outclassed by Kenyan-born Briton Froome, it was a battle they controlled from start to finish.
“When we got to the last climb, with about 5km to go the relief started to come that we were almost at the finish,” said Wiggins. “Once Cadel had got dropped and we were in that little group the sense of relief was slightly overwhelming that we’ve actually got through the stage.
“And to have taken more time off Cadel, which I don’t think we really expected this morning.”
There was a moment of confusion when Froome launched a small attack to leave the yellow jersey isolated. Five days after beating Evans to victory on the first hilltop finish, it was another example of Froome’s apparent class. Order, however, was eventually restored and Wiggins later explained: “I didn’t have a radio at that point, my piece had fallen out.
“But this morning we certainly spoke about Chris attacking in the final… I mean, we’d already got rid of Cadel… but this morning we were planning on (him) still being there and Chris maybe making up those 20 odd seconds to move into second overall.
“The plan this morning was for me to stay with Vincenzo and those guys, as long as Chris didn’t drag those guys away.
“I think today he showed he had the legs. It was another great day for the team.”
Editor’s Note: Keep your browser pointed to VeloNews.com for more from stage 11 at the Tour de France. Agence France Presse contributed to this report.