Bradley Wiggins' chances of becoming Britain's first top-three finisher in the Tour suffered a major but not definitive setback in yesterday's crucial Alpine stage. The Londoner slid from third to sixth overall after he was unable to follow a joint attack by the brothers Schleck – Andy and Frank – on the penultimate ascent of the stage, the Col de Romme.
Team-mates in the Saxo Bank squad and fearsome climbers, the Schlecks proved they are the main challengers to race leader Alberto Contador when Andy, the younger, opened up hostilities with a searing charge up the right-hand side of the road. While Frank almost gleefully bounded after him, and Contador followed with one of his team-mates, German Andreas Klöden, in tow, neither Wiggins nor – initially – Lance Armstrong, were able to handle the brutal change in speed.
Ahead, the Schleck brothers maintained a relentless, high rhythm as the nine-kilometre climb coiled upwards through dank, dripping pinewoods.
To his immense credit, Wiggins failed to buckle completely. His mouth clenched shut and pedalling steadily, by the summit of the Romme he and Armstrong were only a minute behind the stage leaders.
The Briton and American could have recouped their losses after a fast descent to the final challenge of the day, the Col de la Colombière.
But despite some strong work by Wiggins' team-mate, Christian Vande Velde, the two Garmin-Slipstream riders finally proved no match for the Schleck brothers.
Halfway up the Colombière, the four leaders' advantage had doubled, and Wiggins, while still in control, was wobbling towards a crisis. His cause was not helped, either, when Armstrong realised the Briton was near the limit of his strength and romped away up the climb. To make matters worse, a brief attack by Contador ahead ensured that the Schlecks did not let up their pace either.
At the finish in Le Grand Bornand, Andy Schleck and Contador eased aside to let Frank Schleck take the stage victory. Three minutes and seven seconds later, Wiggins finally crossed the line in seventh place, with a face like thunder. He said later: "Today was hard. I pushed as hard as I possibly could have and now I need to rest, recover and focus on tomorrow."
Contador and the Schleck brothers, on the other hand, were more than content with a day which saw the Spaniard strengthen his lead, Andy move into second place overall and Frank into third.
"I had to make sure I dropped Wiggins today because he's my biggest rival for [today's] time trial," Contador said. "It all worked out well, and my only regret is that when I attacked, my team-mate Klöden wasn't able to follow."
The brothers Schleck were adamant that they would not let Contador rest easy in yellow. "Anybody can make a mistake, we're all human," Frank pointed out, "and Contador can have a bad day, just like the rest of us. This is a race, we don't give up and if we can we'll attack on Mont Ventoux [on Saturday]." Wiggins' chance to strike back comes in today's 40km time trial round Lake Annecy. It is almost certainly the Briton's last opportunity to claw back time on the out-and-out climbers like the Schlecks but it is also his best.
Mark Cavendish's chances of wearing green on the Champs Elysées shrank further after Thor Hushovd increased his overall lead in the points competition. Hushovd took off in an early solo break to snap up 12 points in two sprints, and now has an advantage of 30 points on Cavendish.
Tour de France Race leaders
Race leader Alberto Contador (Sp) Astana
Points leader Thor Hushovd (Nor) Cervélo
Leading climber Franco Pellizotti (It) Liquigas
Young rider Andy Schleck (Lux) Saxo BankReuse content