Sky Procycling rider Bradley Wiggins of Britain, wearing the leader’s yellow jersey, cycles during the tenth stage of the 99th Tour de France cycling race between Macon and Bellegarde-sur-Valserine, July 11, 2012. (REUTERS/Stephane Mahe)

By Gilles Le Roc’h

BELLEGARDE SUR VALSERINE, France, July 11 (Reuters) – Britain’s Bradley Wiggins masterfully fended off the challenges of his rivals to retain the Tour de France yellow jersey into the Alps on Wednesday.

Escorted by his Sky team mates, Wiggins stayed out of trouble in the 194.5-km ride from Macon to Bellegarde sur Valserine, leaving Thomas Voeckler to win the stage after a long breakaway.

“The team were fantastic again today. They made my life a lot easier,” said Wiggins, who retained his lead of one minute 53 seconds over defending champion Cadel Evans of Australia.

Wiggins’ team mate Chris Froome stayed third, 2:07 adrift.

Fourth overall last year, Voeckler spent the whole day in the front and amply deserved the third Tour stage victory of his career, especially as he nearly did not start this edition because of an injury to his right knee.

“I’m 33, I’m riding my 10th Tour so I can tell you I do realize what it means,” said the Frenchman, who outwitted breakaway companion Michel Scarponi and veteran German Jens Voigt in the tough finale.

“My knee was hurting, the team were spat on before the start. There was no way I could give up,” said Voeckler, who also took the King of the Mountains polka-dot jersey.

The Frenchman’s Europcar team had been under fire before the start of the Tour in Liege when it was revealed they were being investigated on doping suspicions.

“It really got on my nerves and I really wanted to reply on the road,” said Voeckler, who pulled out of the French championship a week before the Tour because of his knee inflammation.

NO PANIC

Wednesday’s rest day obviously worked miracles for the Frenchman, who became a national hero in 2004 when he held the yellow jersey for 10 days, a feat he repeated a year ago before finishing just outside the podium.

Voeckler was first at the top of the Grand Colombier, the first out-of-category climb in this Tour, during which some of Wiggins’s rivals tried in vain to destabilise him and his team.

“I like Voeckler, he’s a good guy. He’s a rider who was not sure to be at the start. It’s good to see. He’s a crowd pleaser,” Wiggins said.

On the way up the Grand Colombier, Belgium’s Jurgen Van den Broeck, one of the peloton’s best climbers, surged three times from the pack to try and unsettle Team Sky, but he was reined in easily and had to be content with grabbing 32 seconds on the finish line thanks to a last gasp move.

Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali, fourth overall 2:23 off the pace, was expected to use his downhiller’s skills to attack in the descent and he did, taking a minute off the Wiggins group before being caught in the valley.

“It’s the same in every Tour. The yellow jersey is always attacked. It would be sad otherwise,” said Wiggins.

“We certainly expected him (Nibali) to do that today. But he wasn’t away long and we knew that towards the finish, he would need quite a big effort to stay away. We didn’t panic too much.”

Sky team principal David Brailsford was quite unfazed by Nibali’s move.

“They can do that everyday, it won’t go very far,” he told reporters.

Evans also tried briefly to catch Team Sky off their guard in the final kilometers, but to no avail.

“I was a little bit hesitant and maybe it was a missed opportunity,” said Evans.“

“Without a doubt, Cadel is the one I’ll watch all the time. But I don’t underestimate anyone in the first 10,” said Wiggins.

Thursday’s 148-km 11th stage to La Toussuire is the second mountain top finish this year, the first at high altitude and the British Tour leader said he expected a tough day.

“Tomorrow is not long, but with many climbs it’s the hardest stage in the second week. There will probably be attacks from all sides again but it’s good for the show,” he said.