Tour de France recap: Rolland wins, Wiggins pads lead

Stage 11, arguably the hardest day of this year’s Tour de France, was hyped as an inevitably epic battle among the serious contenders for the title in this year’s Tour. And it was, as attacks by the favorites flew fast and furious all the way to the finish line behind the winning effort of Europcar’s Pierre Rolland.

But make no mistake about it. This was a day for the domestiques.

From Chris Froome to Tejay van Garderen to Christopher Kern to Michael Rogers, it was the members of the supporting casts that stole the show from Wiggins, Evans & Co. on Thursday and at times turned the day’s steep climbs into battlegrounds for a bizarre proxy war.

The first indication that the day would be something other than ordinary came on the Col de la Croix de Fer, the second of four fearsome Alpine climbs that the race’s 167 remaining riders climbed on the stage. At the front of the race, Kern drove the day’s escape up the climb at a breakneck pace with Rolland, now the de facto leader of Europcar after Thomas Voeckler’s horrendous day, in tow, allowing the break to maintain a sizable gap over the main pack and reducing the group in size from 22 to just eight at the summit.

Meanwhile, the action behind was rapidly heating up. Shortly after the start of the Croix de Fer, BMC’s van Garderen suddenly sprinted away from the rapidly dwindling yellow jersey group. Just minutes later, van Garderen was joined on the attack by team leader Cadel Evans, who started the stage in second place, less than two minutes behind race leader Bradley Wiggins. It was a bold move; BMC had laid all their cards on the table with nearly 37 miles, or about two hours’ worth of racing, left to be tackled.

“I was more surprised he attacked there because there was a hell of a long way to go,” said Wiggins, who is not known to mince words, after the stage.

But it was not Wiggins who directly responded to the attack. Instead, his teammate Rogers set the tempo the whole way up the climb, and moved at such a blistering pace that all but the most elite riders in the Tour were spit out the back of the group. Wiggins was content to sit on the wheel of Richie Porte, another teammate.

A little ways up the road, things were starting to get a bit strange. On multiple occasions, van Garderen appeared to put Evans into difficulty and unintentionally open up a gap, only to realize his mistake and slow down accordingly. After struggling along for a little over three miles, the clearly reserved van Garderen and his weakening captain were reeled in by Rogers. Once again, the favorites were all together.

They stayed that way until the final 18km climb up to La Toussuire, when the race exploded as all of Wiggins’ main rivals launched increasingly vicious attacks. In succession, Janez Brajkovic, Thibault Pinot, Jurgen van den Brouck and Vincenzo Nibali (who actually had to attack twice after his first spurt failed to gain him significant ground) all went off the front and formed an elite breakaway that threatened to put serious time into Wiggins’ overall lead; Nibali, who began the day in 4th place, just 2’23″ behind Wiggins, was the most dangerous.

Once again, though, it was not Wiggins, but rather Froome who took up the gauntlet and began to chase hard after the four escapees. Froome’s pace proved to be too hot for Evans, who dropped away from the group while being shepherded all the while by van Garderen, who once again did not appear to be in any real difficulty himself. Evans was ultimately destined to lose just under 90 seconds to Wiggins on the day; it is tempting to wonder how much more he would have lost had van Garderen been given the freedom to stay with the Team Sky express.

“It’s a pity he was having an off day because normally he’d be the one dropping me, not the other way round,” said the 23-year-old van Garderen, who is currently the highest-placed American and the Tour’s Best Young Rider at seventh overall.

Evans could take some solace in the knowledge that by the time Froome and Wiggins arrived at the group of Nibali, they were the only ones to make the junction; everyone else had found Froome’s sustained acceleration too hot to handle.

Then came the strangest moment of the day: shortly after catching the three men ahead of him, Froome mounted a ferocious attack that only Pinot could follow. But where was Wiggins? So violent was Froome’s acceleration that his own leader was immediately put into serious difficulty for a few anxious moments, until Froome’s radio frantically lit up with the command to ease up–which he immediately obeyed.

While it’s possible that the attack was all a simple misunderstanding, Froome’s comments afterward imply that things might not be as rosy as they seem for Sky, even though its dynamic duo currently occupies the top two spots in the General Classification.

Rolland, who hung on to win by just under a minute over the Wiggins group, was oblivious to the drama behind, though he could certainly sympathize with the plight of Froome and van Garderen. Last year, Rolland played a key role in helping Voeckler maintain his yellow jersey almost all the way into Paris. When Voeckler finally cracked for good on the third-from-last stage, Rolland through off the shackles that had kept him from making his mark and flew away to a spectacular win on Alpe d’Huez. Now, he appears ready to continue his ascent out of his former leader’s shadow, a blueprint that Froome and van Garderen will undoubtedly hope to follow in the coming years.

The stars will rule this year’s tour. But on Thursday, it was their helpers who shone brightest.