British cycling passed a great landmark yesterday as Sky's Bradley Wiggins seized his first Tour de France lead, taking a significant step towards becoming Britain's only winner in its 108-year-history. His team-mate Chris Froome also clinched the stage win.
Wiggins became the first Briton to claim the leader's yellow jersey since David Millar won the Tour's opening prologue in 2000. Back then Millar was never tipped as a possible podium finisher or winner: with Wiggins it is just the opposite.
Quite apart from confirming his status as favourite, it is almost as important that Wiggins and Team Sky have taken the race by the scruff of the neck in the mountains, two days before the Tour reaches its first time trial – on paper the Londoner's favourable terrain.
"Whatever happens from now on, just taking the jersey is a massive thing," said Wiggins. "I have so much respect for this jersey. It's something I dreamed about since a child.
"A year ago I was lying in a hospital in France with a broken collarbone after crashing out in the first week. Now I'm leading the biggest race in the world. And the way we rode as team shows that we're well on track now, we'll try and keep the jersey, and we've shown we'll be able to defend it every day as best as possible."
Quite apart from Wiggins' virtuoso solo performance, Sky have shown clearly that they are the strongest team in the mountains, shredding the front group to just five riders in just six kilometres of short, severe climbing. Among that number, the two key rivals were the 2010 Tour of Spain winner, Vincenzo Nibali, and last year's Tour champion, Cadel Evans – the only rider to stage an attack. That finally served as a launchpad for Froome to charge away and claim the win.
For Froome, victory was confirmation that his surprise second place overall in the Tour of Spain last year was no fluke. For Wiggins, the damage inflicted on his rivals – Evans being a major exception – was also important.
As soon as Sky powered up the pace at the foot of the agonisingly steep Planche des Belle Filles climb, deep in the Vosges, the big players began dropping off the back. First to go was Levi Leipheimer of the USA and halfway up Fabian Cancellara, the leader since Liège, opted to ease back.
But the carnage continued, with just a dozen riders left with 2.5km to go. Frank Schleck was next to crack, then Samuel Sanchez. Normally the Tour's first major climb is where the favourites play a game of cat and mouse, estimating their rivals' condition for future attacks. Instead, the pace set down by Sky's Michael Rogers, then Richie Porte and then Froome was so strong that the damage was done at the back of the bunch, with nobody barring Evans able to put in the briefest of challenges.
The closest of the top pre-race favourites, 50 seconds back, was the double Tour of Spain winner Denis Menchov, with Sanchez at 1min 30 sec and the rest even further adrift. Sky, on the other hand, now have Wiggins in the lead and two other riders – Froome and Rogers – in the top 10 overall. Froome has even taken hold of the King of the Mountains jersey.
"I never expected the gaps to be so big, I was a little bit surprised that nobody could attack, but I was dictating the pace. I knew that if someone wanted to attack off that pace, they would have to go a lot harder," said Wiggins. "I was surprised there were only four of us going round that final corner, I thought there would be 15 of us. So that's a good sign."
Wiggins even revealed that he had asked Froome to ease back a bit, in order to be sure that his team-mate could go for the stage win. "I told Froome not to go too hard, we knew we weren't going to get rid of Cadel, so I told him to save himself a bit. It's rare for Tour finishes to be that steep, so for him to win the stage after his unlucky start was really great."
Isolated from his BMC squad Evans, arguably Wiggins' most dangerous rival, had barely crossed the line before he admitted he was on the back foot: "With a team that strong, he's going to be hard to beat."
The Kenyan-born Froome was forced to deny that he would be challenging for the overall lead. "Not this year, no. For now the plan is to look after Bradley," he said, and the hug the pair gave each other after the finish was surely evidence that there is no dissenting within the Sky camp.
What it means...
Bradley Wiggins has scored a huge but not decisive blow in his battle to be Britain's first Tour de France winner. Whatever happens from here on, taking the lead in such decisive style represents a major triumph. As Wiggins put it bluntly: "It's fucking enormous." Sky have proved that they are the strongest team in the mountains – vital psychologically to the team after losing their key climber, Kanstantsin Sivtsov, in a crash, and also a major blow for their rivals in the upcoming Alps and Pyrenees. Last year's winner, Cadel Evans, looks to be the main challenger for Wiggins.
The pick of this week's stages
Tomorrow, Stage Nine Arc-et-Senans to Besançon: 41.5km individual time trial
Unless he turns on the heat in the mountains – feasible, but unlikely – the Tour's first long time trial is probably Bradley Wiggins' best chance to open up an important gap on all his rivals in the first half of the race. He destroyed the opposition in a similar length "race of truth" – as time trials are known – in the Critérium du Dauphiné, the warm-up for the Tour, and Sky will hope he does the same. Keep an eye open again for Sky's Chris Froome, second in last year's Tour of Spain and like Wiggins an expert time triallist.
Thursday, Stage 11 Albertville to La Toussuire- Les Sybelles: 148km
The Tour's one main Alpine summit finish at La Toussuire ski station, and the same climb where Wiggins successfully defended his lead in the Critérium du Dauphiné en route to victory in 2010. A series of long, steady ramps, this is ideal territory for Wiggins to put Sky's climbing specialists such as Richie Porte on the front and wear out the opposition with a sustained high pace – a tactic that paid dividends in the Tour of Spain's summit finishes, where Froome finished runner-up overall and Wiggins third.
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