LA TOUSSUIRE, France (Reuters) - Bradley Wiggins tightened his grip on the Tour de France yellow jersey on Thursday after reigning champion Cadel Evans gambled and lost, leaving most of his hopes on the slopes of the 11th stage.
The Australian boldly attacked with 65km to go, hoping to catch the Briton and his team off guard, but it was a ploy that backfired as Evans lost one minute 26 seconds to Wiggins.
Overall, he is now a massive 3:19 behind the Team Sky leader with the Pyrenees and a 53.5km individual time trial to come in the third week of the Tour.
“Once Cadel got dropped and we were in that little group, the sense of relief was overwhelming really. We took much more time on Cadel than we ever expected this morning,” Wiggins said.
Evans’s BMC team director John Lelangue acknowledged his leader’s chances had faded on the flanks of the Croix de Fer pass.
“It’s getting more and more complicated. More than three minutes, it’s complicated also knowing there is a time trial at the end and there are not so many big mountain finishes remaining.”
Wiggins now leads compatriot Chris Froome by 2:05 overall, the first time two Britons have ever led the world’s greatest cycling event and a striking illustration of Team Sky’s domination of the race.
Yet Froome, who also finished third in the stage behind breakaway winner Pierre Rolland and fellow Frenchman Thibaut Pinot, again appeared to be in an awkward situation as both a domestique and a potential rival to his leader.
The Kenyan-born Froome, winner of the first mountain stage of this Tour in the seventh stage, was even seen surging with four km to go amidst confusion about whether he was helping Wiggins or fending for himself.
“I followed team orders at all costs,” Froome said.
Wiggins diplomatically explained to reporters that his team mate had worked according to plan.
“There was a bit of confusion at that moment. But we certainly talked about Chris maybe attacking in the finale as long as I was staying with (Vincenzo) Nibali and these guys,” said Wiggins.
Nibali was the other thorn in Wiggins’s side.
The Italian, who had been expected to try his luck in the descents, struck twice in the final climb to La Toussuire, yet never moved more than 20 seconds clear of the Briton.
In the general classification, Nibali retained third place, 2:23 adrift.
“Vincenzo certainly showed today that he was strong. His attacks were pretty severe,” said Wiggins.
While the Tour contenders battled it out for final victory, Rolland, the last survivor of the day’s break, kept rolling towards the finish line to claim the stage.
Already crowned in the prestigious stage finish up l‘Alpe d‘Huez a year ago, Rolland made it two stage wins in succession for his Europcar team after German Thomas Voeckler’s victory in Bellegarde sur Valserine on Wednesday.
It was also a deserved triumph for the plucky Frenchman, injured in a massive pile-up in stage five and who crashed again in a descent before the final hill.
“I was too unlucky on this Tour to let another minor crash get me down. This goes to show you can go from the bitterest pain to the greatest joy within days on the Tour,” Rolland said.
Dutchman Robert Gesink, who was hoping for a podium finish in Paris but had been struggling, will not take the start on Friday, his Rabobank team said without elaborating.
The 226km 12th stage again includes two first category climbs before a more gentle finish towards Annonay.
Reporting by Gilles Le Roc'h and Julien Pretot; Editing by Ken Ferris