It was suppose to be the toughest stage of the 2012 Tour de France yet and it most certainly lived up to that billing. Stage 11 was a 140km (86.98 mile) ride through the high mountains of the Alps that featured two Beyond Category climbs followed by a Cat 2 and a Cat 1 that rolled to the finish line. Even the downhill portions were fast, technical and dangerous. Everything a GC contender, not to mention a fan of the race, could ask for.
The real question of the day was whether or not defending champion Cadel Evans could find a way to attack Tour leader Bradley Wiggins and pull back some time on the Yellow Jersey. If Evans had a hope of winning the race, it seemed that he had to make a move today. Part way through the stage he did attempt to pull away on the second big climb, using teammate Tejay Van Garderen as a pacemaker. But the Australian seemed to lack any kick in his legs and even struggled to keep pace with Van Garderen as the American tried to pull Cadel with him to the summit, where presumably Evans would have attacked on the descent. Both were swept back into the peloton before they even came close to pulling that off however.
The day would go from bad to worse for Cadel, who would end up getting dropped on the final climb of the day and give up even more time to Wiggins. In fact, Evans went from being a possible repeat champion to a rider who could now finish off the podium altogether. The final Category 1 climb of the day that led to the mountaintop finish was his undoing and he saw Wiggin’s Sky teammate Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale move up to second and third place respectively.
Team Sky has been rolling along like an unstoppable force, guiding Wiggins safely through these challenging stages and ensuring that he always has assistance when he need it to help defend the Maillot Jaune. Their performance is has reminded many of the old U.S. Postal team that carried Lance Armstrong to victory on several occasions in years past. They are dominant, strong and totally in command of the race at this stage. In fact, it seems increasingly unlikely that anyone will be able to catch Wiggins. Provided he stays healthy and avoids any surprise accidents, I believe we already know who our 2012 Tour winner will be.
The winner of today’s stage was French rider Pierre Rolland of Team Europcar. He pulled away on the final climb to make a solo finish that was inspiring to watch, finishing 55 seconds in front of Thibaut Pinot and Froome.
With Wiggins clearly in command of the Yellow Jersey, it is the competition for the other jersey’s that could prove most interesting in the days ahead. Peter Sagan remains in Green and has had few opportunities to earn points in the past few days. Fredrik Kessiakoff of Astana now holds the Polka Dot Jersey of the King of the Mountains and Van Garderen has solidified his place as the best young rider in the Tour, holding on to the White Jersey.
Tomorrow’s Stage 12 will move into the medium mountains once again and will seem like a respite after today’s grueling climbs. It is a 220km (136.69 mile) ride from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to Annonay Davézieux that begins with two tough Category 1 climbs and then drops off dramatically for the latter stages of the day. A Cat 3 climb near the end will seem like a mole hill to the peloton and the sprinters will get a chance to show everyone that they’re still hanging around. I wouldn’t expect the GC to change much at all, but the Green Jersey may be back in play, particularly as they head into another flat stage on Saturday.