Team Sky rider Christopher Froome of Britain (C) cycles with BMC Racing Team rider Cadel Evans of Australia (L) and Team Sky rider Bradley Wiggins of Britain (R) during the seventh stage of the 99th Tour de France cycling race between Tomblaine and La Planche des Belles Filles, July 7, 2012. (REUTERS/Lionel Bonaventure/Pool)
By Gilles Le Roc’h
LA PLANCHE DES BELLES FILLES, France, July 7 (Reuters) – Bradley Wiggins and his Team Sky made their ambitions clear in the first mountain stage of the Tour de France, sweeping both the overall lead, the stage win and the King of the mountains jersey at La Planche des Belles Filles on Saturday.
The final climb of the 199-km seventh stage was short and unheralded, but its 5.9 km were enough to sort out the serious Tour contenders from the also-rans and the leading riders at the top are probably the same men who will battle it out for final victory in Paris in the two weeks ahead.
The stage went to Briton Chris Froome, who surged in the final 100 meters to beat defending Tour champion Cadel Evans by two seconds while his team leader Wiggins was third in the same time.
Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali finished fourth, seven seconds adrift.
To see the two pre-Tour favorites side by side on the line was a sign that their battle would probably dominate the two weeks ahead.
“My first objective today was to take the yellow jersey,” said Wiggins, who now leads the title-holder by 10 seconds overall and Nibali by 16.
“It’s a dream since I was a child. Whatever happens in the rest of the race it’s a massive thing,” added the pursuit Olympic champion, the first Briton to lead the Tour de France since David Millar in 2000.
A seven-man breakaway, gone 15 km after the start in Tomblaine, was caught at the bottom of the final ascent and that is when the Team Sky train, who had led the chase for a while, seized control.
Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen was the first stage of the Sky rocket at the foot of the climb.
Then Australian Michael Rogers took over and some Tour contenders started to lose ground – Dutchman Robert Gesink, American Levi Leipheimer and Luxembourg’s Frank Schleck had already been dropped when Richie Porte took his turn.
When the Australian handed the baton to Froome, only five riders were left to tackle the steep last section of the hill.
With 400 meters to go, Evans surged, but Froome responded straight away to go for the stage and seize the polka dot jersey as the best climber in this Tour as well.
“I kept waiting for Cadel to go and he never really went. I think he didn’t have the legs to go,” the Kenyan-born Froome told reporters.
“Hopefully, he’s not holding anything back and he’s not going to surprise us in the next few weeks. He and Bradley look to be quite on par at the moment,” he added.
The Team Sky effort was plain textbook cycling and Wiggins made it clear everything had been planned that way.
“That’s the plan, that’s what we trained for. We trained for each demand of this race, we covered every area.
“It’s become clear that the Tour is now down to three riders, Cadel and Nibali and me,” he added.
The revenge was all the sweeter for Wiggins as his Tour chances had been ruined last season by a crash in the same seventh stage.
“”One year on after being in hospital in Chateauroux, to be in the yellow jersey. Great day,” he said.
It was not so great for the riders involved in the awful crash which depleted the peloton in the previous stage to Metz – 13 riders were forced out of the Tour while many were not in a condition to play leading roles in the finale.
With another hilly 157-km ride into Switzerland that Team Sky should control easily on Sunday and the first individual time trial on Monday, in which Wiggins expects to “consolidate the jersey, the Briton is following his game plan to perfection.
“Then it’s the rest day and we’re halfway into the Tour,” he said.