The Tour's rain-soaked trek through the Vosges mountains yesterday brought mixed fortunes for Britain's top riders as Bradley Wiggins moved up to fourth place overall but Mark Cavendish lost his lead in the points classification.
Moving a position closer to the yellow jersey was always on the cards for Wiggins after American Levi Leipheimer, lying fourth before yesterday's stage, did not start the day's racing because of a fractured wrist. But on a day where the peloton tackled five classified mountain climbs in atrocious weather, the Londoner had to stick with the top contenders – and he proved more than up to the task.
While the stage win went to solo breakaway rider Heinrich Haussler of Germany, Wiggins' long, gaunt figure could constantly be seen close to the front of the main pack, dominated by Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador's Astana team.
Wiggins finally finished eighth on the stage, and remains at 46 seconds overall behind Italian leader Rinaldo Nocentini. The triple Olympic gold medallist's radical improvement in the mountains is attributed to his shedding eight kilos in weight over the winter. "He's following my footsteps a little," commented the Garmin-Slipstream co-leader Christian Vande Velde. "I started last year's race three kilos lighter than usual. Psychologically it makes a big difference. You're dragging much less weight over each climb and that helps."
With the Alps and Mont Ventoux climbs still to come, it is still far too soon to venture whether Wiggins can hold on to fourth place overall all the way through to Paris. But should the 29-year-old do so, he would equal the best performance for a Briton in the Tour, taken by specialist climber Robert Millar in 1984.
While Wiggins remains firmly in contention, Cavendish was ousted from his lead in the points competition after suffering on the Vosges climbs and finishing 118th, 23 minutes behind the winner. Cavendish's arch-rival for the green jersey, Thor Hushovd, took sixth, gaining 15 points to move ahead of the Manxman. All is far from lost for Cavendish, who could bounce back into the points lead again as soon as today if he wins at the end of the flat 199km stage from Colmar to Besancon. Having won all four of the race's bunch sprints so far, his chances are good.
"Thor profited because there weren't any big attacks by any of the top contenders on the climbs and he could stay with the front group," said Cavendish's team manager, Rolf Aldag. "We'll maybe have to change our tactics, but we're still totally confident of Cav's chances."
Tour de France: Race leaders
*Race leader: Rinaldo Nocentini (Italy) Ag2R
*Points leader: Thor Hushovd (Norway) Cervélo
*Leading climber: Franco Pellizotti (Italy) Liquigas Best
*Young rider: Tony Martin (Germany) Columbia-HTCReuse content