By Austin Murphy
July 12, 2012
Pierre Rolland took a spill during stage 11, but attacked repeatedly to claim his second stage win in the Alps in two years.

An extremely cool moment at the finish line of the Tour de France's stage 11: As rising star Pierre Rolland crossed the finish line, pumping the last, agonizing pedal strokes atop the Alp called La Toussuire, he fumbled to zip his jersey -- gotta take care of the sponsor, which in Rolland's case is Europcar -- then raised his arms in victory. His left forearm was a tapestry of abrasions, thanks to a downhill wipeout just an hour earlier; when attempting to cut inside one of his fellow breakaway riders, Rolland hit the deck, eliciting very little compassion from his fellow escapees, who could not be bothered to wait for him.

Digging deep, the Frenchman latched back on to the group and then, as payback, dropped them all on the ascent of La Toussuire, giving Europcar its second stage win in two days. Stage 10 was snatched by the cagey, 33-year-old Thomas Voeckler, in whose service Rolland has long ridden, and from whose shadow he is finally escaping.

What initially looked like a forgettable Tour for Europcar (Voeckler has had tendinitis in his knees this season, and almost didn't take the start) is now a smashing success. Europcar's virtuosity, coupled with the stunning Stage 8 victory of Thibaut Pinot, who at 22 is the youngest rider in the race, gives the host nation three wins halfway through the Tour.

While the French will be toasting Rolland tonight, there will be long faces Down Under. The major casualty of today's stage was defending Tour champion Cadel Evans of Australia, who looked to be on the rivet at various times earlier in the day, when his teammate and escort, Tejay van Garderen, had to slow for him. Not quite five kilometers from the summit of La Toussuire, Cadel cracked, unable to hold the pace set by race leader Brad Wiggins of Team Sky, and Wiggo's talented wingman, Chris Froome (who was feeling rather more frisky than his boss and didn't care who knew it, a subject we will revisit below).

In the end, Evans lost another minute and a half to the maillot jaune -- he trails the Brit by 3:19 -- and dropped from second place to fourth behind Froome and Italy's Vincenzo Nibali. Having demonstrated that he can neither climb nor time trial with the lanky, quirky, sometimes salty Brit, Evans now seems to be battling for a place on the podium, rather than the top spot.

Does "La Toussuire" ring a bell? It's the Alp on which Floyd Landis lost his yellow jersey in spectacular fashion in 2006, losing around ten minutes to stage winner Mikael Rasmussen. (His quixotic, what-the-hell attack the next day earned most of it back but I digress.)

The point being, there's something about this climb that defies logic. I never wrapped my head around how Landis, who had been so strong in that Tour, could have imploded so completely on its slopes (which, at a 6 percent gradient over 18.5 kilometers, are demanding, but not as brutal as the Col de Madeleine and the Col de la Croix Fer, for instance, two of the "beyond category" climbs the peloton endured during Thursday's savage, 148-kilometer stage.)

This year's trip up the Toussuire presented its own mystery. About three kilometers from the summit , Froome appeared to attack Wiggins, his own teammate -- his liege, his team leader! Froome stood up in the saddle, his bike rocking back and forth, and rocketed around Wiggins, immediately opening a significant gap. He was soon instructed by director Sean Yates to simmer down and get his skinny arse back to Wiggins, whose cadence never changed. After the stage, Wiggins implied that he could have follow Froome, but chose not to do so.

"At that moment I was just really concentrating on my effort and keeping it constant," Wiggins explained. "I just wanted to clear the lactate and didn't want to make any more of an acceleration.

"There was a lot of noise and a lot of things going on the radio and a bit of confusion at that point as to what we were doing."

Right. Exactly. Fog of war and all that. Still, Froome's unsanctioned little burst on Thursday was a reminder of last year's Vuelta a Espana. Wiggins went in as the team leader, but Froome proved the stronger rider. And while they're all singing from the same hymn sheet ("The entire team comes to the Tour to help Bradley," Froome told VeloNews, "I want to be there to help him"), one wonders if Froome might be harboring just a smidgen of resentment, or a desire to show directors of other teams that he would make a very strong team leader, himself.

Right now Wiggins's biggest threat is Nibali, of Liquigas-Cannondale. Although he has no helpers in the high mountains, Nibali has shown formidable punch; in fact Evans was shed near the top of the Toussuire by successive, vicious attacks from the Italian. On the previous day, Nibali attacked Wiggins on the twisting, technical descent of the on the Col du Grand Colombier, and quickly put a minute into him.

Wiggins methodically reeled him in, and turned to look at Nibali after they crossed the finish. The Italian chose to interpret Wiggins' turning his head and making eye contact as somehow disparaging.

"Sometimes turning and looking at someone like that is a bit of an insult, " said Nibali. "If he wants to be a champion, I think he needs to show his rivals a bit of respect.

Whether he stops making eye contact with his rivals or not, Wiggins is looking very much like a champion. The Brit showed undeniable class at the end of today's stage, when he found himself crossing the line alongside the lime-jerseyed Nibali. As they decelerated, Wiggins looked at his rival again, this time draping an arm around his shoulders. If he was surprised, Nibali didn't let on. He put his left arm in Wiggo's narrow shoulders. It was the second extremely cool moment at today's finish line, and portends many more before Paris.

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