Wiggins, Froome strike a blow for British cycling in France
Chris Froome held off a late charge by Cadel Evans, the defending champ
Saturday's victory was the biggest stage win of Froome's cycling career
Froome's teammate, Brad Wiggins, became the first English leader since 1988
Judging by his celebration at the finish line on Saturday -- a sort of modified Tiger fist pump before returning his hand to the bar -- Brad Wiggins was happier to see his teammate win the stage than he was to take the overall lead in the race.
Saturday's Stage 7 finished atop a not overly long (six kilometers) but appallingly steep climb called La Planche des Belles Filles, which translates, roughly, to "The Plateau of Beautiful Girls" but is in fact an ugly ascent averaging an eight percent gradient (deeply painful), but kicking up, over the last few hundred meters, to 20 percent (beyond obscene). It was at the base of that steepest section that defending Tour champion Cadel Evans launched an attack, slingshotting himself from yellow-helmeted Team Sky riders Wiggins and Chris Froome. The latter is a smiling, stick-figure Brit whose most memorable Tour moment, before Saturday, was his brief flight into the safety barriers in a pileup near the end of Stage 3. He'd spent the entirety of Saturday's climb slaving away on the front, along with Michael Rogers and Richie Porte, in the service of Wiggins, his team leader.
The Sky contingent set a murderous pace up La Planche, shedding such notables as Fabian Cancellara, who'd clung to the yellow jersey for a week; RadioShack Nissan Trek leader Frank Schleck, and Europcar's Pierre Rolland, last year's hero on the Alpe d'Huez. Katusha's Denis Menchov, and Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale were the last to peel off, spent.
So it was stunning, when Evans attacked, to see Froome stand up in the saddle and walk him down, closing the gap with an effortlessness belying the work he'd done. Froome should've been running on fumes, but had enough left -- while essentially riding up the side of a pyramid -- to drop Evans like an anchor and cruise in for the stage win.
Behind him, Wiggins kept his cool, hunkering low over the bars, staying aero and calmly reeling Evans in to make sure they finished with the same time. Wiggo's fist pump punctuated a fantastic day for the British-based Team Sky. Froome won the biggest stage of his career, and Wiggins became the first English rider to don the maillot jaune since Chris Boardman in 1988, and the first British rider since David Millar in 2000.
A few moments after they crossed the line, Wiggins found his countryman and clamped him in a series of hugs.
"It wasn't actually the plan to go for the stage," Froome later explained, almost apologizing for his victory. When Evans went up the road, he said, "I thought I'd give it a kick and see what happens." When the Aussie failed to hold his wheel, Froome recalled, "I thought, wow, this could actually work."
While obviously delighted, Wiggins struck a more measured tone, befitting a man who must now assume the weight and responsibility of the leader's jersey. He praised his teammates, expressed pleasure that Sky GM David Brailsford's plan had worked to perfection, then allowed a note of relief into his voice as he said, "We just survived a very, very, very manic first week."
Just like on the PGA Tour, Saturday was going to be "moving day." The race moved out of the flatlands of the Champagne region into the Vosges massif, with peaks that aren't as grand as either the Alps or Pyrenees but are certainly steep enough to rearrange the standings.
The ascent of La Planche Des Belles Filles, it had long been predicted, would "fracture" the peloton. As it turned out, much of that work was done the day before by a pileup that was massive even by the chaotic standards of the first week of this race. Twenty-five kilometers from the finish of Stage 6, with riders bunched together and flying along near 30 mph, a crash near the front of the group took out half the peloton and sent 13 men to the hospital.
AG2R's Hubert Dupont broke bones in his right arm and his back. Marten Wynants of Rabobank cracked two ribs, punctured a lung, finished the stage and only then was taken to the hospital, where he immediately underwent surgery. Five members of the Colorado-based Garmin-Sharp squad hit the deck; Tom Danielson (separated left shoulder, sprained neck, chest contusions, multiple deep abrasions) was taken away by ambulance. Despite getting shredded, Johan Van Summeren and Ryder Hesjedal -- winner of Giro d'Italia and Garmin's best hope for a podium finish -- finished the stage. Hesjedal subsequently abandoned.
Among the riders losing massive time in the crash was Thomas Voeckler, who crossed the line and, according to CyclingNews.com placed blame for the pileup on the earpieces keeping riders in communication with the directors back in the team cars "You've got the directeurs sportifs from 22 teams saying 'You have to be up there, you have to be up there.' Well, if you have 198 riders like that on a road that's only seven meters wide, then there's not going to be room for anyone else. Voilà."
Friday's carnage, and Saturday's pyrotechnics on La Planche, have dramatically whittled the list of bona fide contenders, with two more weeks of racing. Nibali is only six seconds behind Evans, who trails Wiggins by 10 seconds. And, though he slid backward Saturday, Menchov is a mere 56 seconds off the lead. But the final moments of Stage 7 were highly clarifying. They confirmed what we suspected: this race will come down to Evans and Wiggins.
Sitting outside the team bus before a Tour of California Stage last May, BMC director Jim Ochowicz confirmed that Evans' busy offseason had left him behind schedule. (Evans had been feted all over Australia as the nation's first Tour winner, then, with his wife Chiara, adopted a baby daughter).
He acknowledged that Evans and Wiggins will be roughly equal in the time trials, concluding, "That means we've got to deal with him in the mountains."
Based on what we saw Saturday, that's going to be tough. For much of his career, Evans was accused of riding without panache, of "following wheels," rather than attacking. He's shed that reputation in recent years. But now, it seems, as the Tour heads into the hills, and high mountains, he's going to have to attack Wiggins -- and make at least one of those attacks stick -- if he hopes to defend his Tour title.
Can he? It's too early to say. The only certainty: it's good to have the first week behind us.