LA TOUSSUIRE, France: Frenchman Pierre Rolland claimed an epic 11th stage victory on the Tour de France Thursday as race leader Bradley Wiggins of Britain took another step toward overall victory.
Rolland soloed over the finish line after an epic day of racing to claim his second victory in the race a year after his maiden win at Alpe d’Huez to hand Europcar their second win in as many days.
The yellow jersey group of Wiggins came over the finish line of the 148 km stage from Albertville 57sec later. It included Italian contender Vincenzo Nibali and Belgian Jurgen van den Broeck.
Wiggins came under attack several times on the final 18km climb to La Toussuire – notably by Nibali and Van den Broeck.
But thanks to the help of Sky teammate Chris Froome the Brit was ultimately able to reel them in and then drop defending champion Cadel Evans of Australia.
Evans, the 2011 champion, ran out of steam in the final kilometers of the climb to finish over a minute behind Wiggins and see his bid for a successful defense severely compromised.
Evans started the day in second place with a deficit of 1min 53sec to Wiggins but dropped to fourth overall at 3:19.
Wiggins now leads teammate Froome by 2:05, with Nibali third but still at 2:23 and Van den Broeck fifth at 4:48.
“It was another great day for the team,” said Wiggins.
“It certainly lived up to its reputation as the hardest stage. Once Cadel had got dropped and we were in that little group the sense of relief was overwhelming really.
“Taking more time off Cadel, I don’t think we really expected that this morning.”
Although Evans’ chances of closing his gap to Wiggins now look slim as there are few mountain stages remaining in the race, his BMC teammate Tejay Van Garderen – who looked stronger than his team leader – was defiant.
“He wasn’t on his best day ... normally he would be ripping the legs off of me,” said the American, who defended his lead in the white jersey classification for the best placed riders aged 25 and under.
“All it would have taken was for Cadel to have the legs for that last push, but he didn’t have it.
“But he’ll shake it off and come back fighting. Nothing changes. We’ll all stand behind our leader.”
Rolland’s victory comes a day after teammate Thomas Voeckler claimed his first stage win this year at Bellegarde-Sur-Valserine.
And it came in emphatic style.
After fighting to get into an early breakaway the Frenchman toiled with a number of rivals over the Col de la Croix de Fer summit, where he lost a 5000 euro prize to Swede Fredrik Kessiakoff, and then bounced back from a crash on a tight hairpin bend on the descent of the Col du Mollard.
On the last, 18 km climb to the summit of La Toussuire the Europcar man played his tactics perfectly, attacking and counter-attacking a four-man leading group before pulling away on his own with over 10 km to race.
“I really dug as deep as I could, both mentally and physically. It’s unbelievable,” said Rolland.
“All I could think about was all the training I’ve done, all the sacrifices I’ve made and all the people I haven’t seen all those months away. I want to say thanks to everyone for all their support.”
He added: “In three weeks you go through every emotion on the Tour de France. You cry with joy and with pain.
“In 10 days I’ve gone from immense pain to a joy that I can’t describe.”