Rolland wins as Wiggins extends lead
Bradley Wiggins extended his overall lead in the Tour de France as Pierre Rolland won stage 11 in La Toussuire.
French climber Rolland made it two-in-two for Team Europcar after a magnificent solo win in the mountainous 148km stage in the French Alps, picking himself up from a crash on the descent of the third of four categorised climbs before riding to victory a day after team-mate Thomas Voeckler had opened Europcar’s Tour account.
Froome moved up to second overall after defending champion Cadel Evans (BMC) lost valuable time on the climb to the mountain-top finish.
Wiggins finished sixth and now leads fellow Brit Froome by 2:05 with Vincenzo Nibali - who along with Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto Belisol) and the yellow jersey finished 57 seconds behind the stage winner - now third, a further 28 seconds back on GC.
Evans crossed the line 2:23 down alongside team-mate Tejay Van Garderen after cracking on the final first-category ascent 5km from the finish. The Australian is now 3:19 down on rival Wiggins on the GC after the second of three summit finishes on this year’s Tour.
"Once Cadel got dropped and we were in that little group the sense of relief was slightly overwhelming really," said Wiggins. "Not only did we get through the stage, we've taken more time on Cadel which I don't think we ever expected this morning."
Rolland, who won stage 19 of last year's Tour at Alpe d’Huez, moved into the top 10 after a perfect day for his French team. The 25-year-old Frenchman jumped clear of the peloton at the start of the first climb of the day, the HC Col de la Madeleine, in pursuit of a large 30-man group which formed over the opening flat 15km of racing.
With both Christophe Kern and Davide Malacarne riding in support of their team-mate, Team Europcar rode a tactical race as they forced a selection going over the summit of the Madeleine.
On the second climb of the day, the HC Col de la Croix de Fer, Kern set a blistering pace as the 22-man leading group was whittled down to just nine, with the peloton riding some four minutes in arrears.
Evans animated the race for the GC with a dig on the Croix de Fer – but despite having American youngster Van Garderen in support, the Australian was slowly reeled in by the Sky team of yellow jersey Wiggins.
Meanwhile, Rolland rode over the summit in pole position ahead of Sweden’s Frederick Kessiakoff (Astana) after the impressive but exhausted Kern had peeled off, his work for the day done.
With just over 40km to go, the nine-man leading group – which featured Chris Horner (RadioShack), Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp), Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank), Vasil Kiryienka (Movistar), Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank), Robert Kiserlovski (Astana) and Peter Velits (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) as well as both Rolland and Kessiakoff – started the penultimate climb of the day, the Cat.2 Col du Mollard.
Rolland attacked with Kiserlovski forcing a reaction from both Sorensen and Kiryienka. The Frenchman took the points over the summit ahead of Croatian Kiserlovski, with Kiryienka and Sorensen passing over a handful of seconds in arrears.
On the final descent Rolland looked uncomfortable on the tight bends, crashing on to his left hip on one left-hander and having to fight back into contention before the final climb.
Kiserlovski attacked 18km from the finish at the start of the first-category ascent. Rolland was able to follow – and then attacked himself 10km from the summit.
Unaware of the fierce battle going on behind him for the GC, Rolland – once called a “Rockstar” by seven-times Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong – kept his cool to ride to a second career Tour win and a second win in as many days for his Europcar team.
"This stage, it's been in my dreams for six months," said Rolland. "This is the queen stage for me, because it is the most difficult, because it's in the Alps and the Alps is my home."
The Frenchman is now 8:31 down in the GC in 8th position - two better than his 10th place finish in Paris last July. Rolland also rises to second in the race for the polka dot jersey, with Kessiakoff leading the mountains standings by 11 points.
While Rolland was riding with gusto toward's France's third stage win on the Tour, further down the mountain a series of attacks from the likes of Janez Brajkovic (Astana), Van Den Broeck and Pinot were followed by one that mattered: a huge dig by the Italian Nibali.
Nibali’s first attempt caused a massive selection, with only Wiggins, Froome, Evans, van Garderen and Frank Schleck (RadioShack) able to follow. But then a second attack by Nibali saw both Froome and Evans start to wobble.
Froome was able to regain his forces but Evans dropped off the back with 5km remaining, his dreams of defending his yellow jersey in Paris seemingly in tatters.
Then something really interesting happened: just as Sky duo Wiggins and Froome were riding back onto the wheel of Nibali – who had caught Brajkovic, Pinot and Van Den Broeck – Sky’s number two put in an almighty attack himself.
Froome’s injection of pace had the whole chasing group in tatters – not least Wiggins, who was dropped off the back in dramatic fashion.
Team orders soon came through the earpiece as Froome dropped the pace and waited for the yellow jersey and the other riders in the group. Together they combined to increase the gap on Evans, who dropped from second to fourth in the GC.
Both Wiggins and Nibali patted each other on the back as the crossed the finish line in a show of mutual respect and admiration after another thrilling day in the Tour.
"I think Vincenzo [Nibali] showed today that he has been getting stronger the whole race. His attacks at the end were pretty severe," said Wiggins.
Besides Evans, the big loser of the day was Russia's Denis Menchov who dropped to 16th in the GC after coming home 14:15 down on stage winner Rolland.
The race continues on Friday with a long 226km stage 12 from St Jean de Maurienne to Annonay Davezieux, which features three categorised climbs.