Strange but true: on the stage in which Sky came under the most pressure from their rivals in the Tour de France, the British team ended up reinforcing their stranglehold on the race, Chris Froome moving up to second overall behind Bradley Wiggins as the 2011 champion, Cadel Evans, came within an inch of losing the race outright.
On a stage crossing three massive Alpine passes and culminating on the summit finish of La Toussuire, Evans did his utmost to break Sky's dominance with a courageous long-distance move on the second pass, the Croix de Fer.
Until that point, the British team had seen everything going to script. On the first ascent, the Madeleine, Edvald Boasson Hagen had driven away at the front of the pack; on the Croix de Fer, the Australian Mick Rogers took over from the Norwegian. Behind him came Richie Porte and roome with Wiggins, seemingly impeturbable, resplendent in yellow.
Evans, though, seemed intent on upsetting the applecart, making what looked – briefly – like a textbook checkmate move. The Australian's BMC team-mates, the best young rider classification leader, Tejay van Garderen, and the Frenchman Amaël Monaird, dropped back from an early break, with Evans bridging across to the duo and locking line astern of his two helpers. Suddenly, rather than Sky having the upper hand, Wiggins had a rival with as much support as he had in the mountains.
But what looked like the most exciting attack of the Tour was over in barely a quarter of an hour. Moinard was not able to help for more than a few hundred yards and then Van Garderen eased up as he realised that Evans was not on a good day. Instead, the defeated Australian dropped back to his usual position behind Wiggins and the Sky train.
Far worse was to come for Evans, as with five kilometres to go Sky – now down to Porte, Froome and Wiggins – upped the pace dramatically in an attempt to bring back a second dangerous attack by Vincenzo Nibali, aka "the Shark of Messina".
Nibali had blasted away the day before, on a difficult descent, so Sky were in no mood to let the winner of the 2010 Tour of Spain move away for a third time in less than 24 hours, particularly as Jurgen van den Broeck, eighth overall, was already up the road. Ironically, it was Evans who paid the highest toll as first Porte and then Froome attempted to reel in Nibali. As Sky intensified their efforts the Australian slid backwards at a slow but steady pace, finishing over 90 seconds back on Froome and Wiggins. Evans dropped from second to fourth overall and is now three minutes and 19 seconds behind Wiggins.
It would however be rash to say, as French television was quick to do, that a rider as tenacious as the former world champion has now lost the Tour.
Evans is clearly not at the level he was last year – at 34 he was the fourth-oldest winner in the Tour's history and his woes may simply be due to age. But given the Australian's almost legendary capacity for dying with his boots on, Sky will be unlikely to give "Cuddles", as Evans is improbably nicknamed, the chance to get back into the game.
"We've taken more time on Evans than I ever expected this morning," Wiggins said. "I was surprised at that, but I was even more surprised at the way he attacked on the Croix de Fer. We were riding a very strong tempo already with Richie and Mick. It's not something I would have had the balls to do."
If Evans is hanging on by his fingernails, there was no such reprieve for the double Tour of Spain winner Denis Menchov. Fifth overall before yesterday's stage, the veteran Russian lost nearly a quarter of an hour.
"It was definitely the hardest stage of the race," Wiggins said. "Even when I got on to the last climb, all I felt when we got to five kilometres to go was relief because I knew from the Critérium du Dauphiné [in which, in 2011, Wiggins defended his lead on this climb ] that the last part of the stage was rolling flat and not so hard."
Just as Froome and Wiggins caught Nibali – "His attacks were pretty severe and he's getting stronger" Wiggins warned, and it seems the Italian, third overall, will now be Sky's most dangerous rival – in a brief moment of confusion, Froome opted to drive ahead by himself. It was a dramatic move that left Wiggins reeling at the back of the bunch and it looked as if Froome – who had been in difficulties just a few minutes before as Wiggins was forced to take over the pursuit of Nibali – was no longer playing a team game. But Wiggins later revealed that according to Sky's plan in the morning, Froome had been given permission to attack in the last kilometres: "As long as I was able to stay with Nibali."
Froome slowed (not at the request of Wiggins, whose race radio was not working) and if his disappointment at missing a second stage win seemed clear, at the very least Sky will leave the Alps with the top two positions overall. "I'll follow orders at all cost, I'm part of the team, and I have to do what the team asks me to," Froome said later. "He [Wiggins] is just as strong as me and stronger than me in the time trials."
Only the stage win escaped the British squad. The day's honours were taken by a Frenchman from the Europcar team for the second time in 24 hours, Pierre Rolland, the winner of last year's Alpe d'Huez stage, following Thomas Voeckler onto the podium.
As the Tour leaves the Alps, though, Sky can be more than satisfied they have come through one of the race's biggest hurdles with their chances of victory in Paris stronger than ever – and possibility of two podium finishers rising fast as well.
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