LA TOUSSUIRE, France – Try as they might, rivals of Bradley Wiggins can’t take his yellow jersey.
The three-time Olympic track champion, looking to become Britain’s first Tour de France winner, beat back repeated attacks Thursday in a crucial Alpine stage won by ace French climber Pierre Rolland.
As Stage 11 began, Wiggins’ main challengers were planning to unsettle him in the 92-mile ride along three big climbs from the 1992 Winter Olympics town of Albertville to the ski station at La Toussuire.
First, defending champion Cadel Evans took a shot at Wiggins on the longest climb – a tactic some questioned. On the way to the uphill finish, Belgium’s Jurgen Van Den Broeck tried, too. Then Vincenzo Nibali did, twice.
Each time, Wiggins steadily, meticulously reeled them in.
Evans petered out early. The 35-year-old Australian was dropped by Wiggins and others who finished nearly a minute behind Rolland. Evans began the day in second place, but finished 1 minute, 26 seconds behind Wiggins and fell to fourth overall. He’s now 3:19 back.
The Briton also dispensed with Russia’s Denis Menchov, who won the Spanish Vuelta twice and the Italian Giro once. He began the day 3:02 back in fifth place but lost more than 13 minutes to Wiggins.
Overall, Wiggins leads Sky teammate Christophe Froome, who rose to second, by 2:05. Nibali is third, 2:23 back. Van Den Broeck is fifth, 4:48 behind.
Wiggins also patched things up with Nibali, who a day earlier hadn’t taken kindly to a seeming glare from the Sky leader. As they finished together Thursday, Wiggins gave him a peacemaking pat on the back.
The Alpine stage shaped up as a pivotal moment because mountains and time trials tend to determine who wins the Tour. Wiggins’ rivals saw it as their chance to strike. He looks unstoppable in the time trials: He won one Monday and another one comes the day before the July 22 finish in Paris. Their last opportunity could await in yet another uphill finish in the Pyrenees on Thursday.
Rolland, a 25-year old Europcar rider, gave his team its second straight stage victory. It was his second in two years following his victory on the fabled Alpe d’Huez in 2011.
The joy of victory contrasted with his “immense pain” weeks earlier. Two days before the Tour start, a French sports daily revealed a previously unknown investigation of his team over allegations of improper use of a controlled substance in the 2011 Tour. The team denies the claim.
The race stays in the Alps today with a 141-mile ride from Saint-Jean-De-Maurienne to Annonay Davezieux.