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 and added 12 seconds to his overall lead during a crucial Alpine stage that was 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 tried, 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, 1 minute, 53 seconds behind Wiggins, but he finished 1:26 behind Wiggins in the stage and fell to fourth overall. Evans is now 3:19 back.
Wiggins also dispensed with Russia’s Denis Menchov, who won the Spanish Vuelta twice and the Italian Giro once. Menchov 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 had taken offense 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 next Thursday.
Thursday’s route was brutal, with at least 40 miles of climbs over two of the most grueling ascents in cycling, plus a very tough uphill finish. Under a relentless sun, riders’ faces reflected the agony: tongues wagging, teeth gritting, mouths agape.
One crucial moment, possibly with the title in the balance, came when Evans tried to shake Wiggins, about halfway up the 6,750-foot Croix de Fer (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 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 three miles later. Some of Evans’ rivals questioned his tactic of attacking on the Iron Cross.
“You’ve got to admire him for trying,” Froome said.
On the last climb, Van Den Broeck, and then Nibali, gave it a try. This time, Wiggins was more vulnerable because his teammates — aside from Froome — had fallen back. But Wiggins caught them, too.
Evans, seemingly spent by his earlier attack, lost ground. He was unable to keep up with Van Garderen, who dutifully stayed back to help his team leader as best he could. Crossing the line, Evans let out a sigh. He didn’t speak as he rode past a scrum of reporters on his way to a team hotel.
The race stays in the Alps today with a 141-mile ride from Saint-Jean-De-Maurienne to Annonay Davezieux.