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After Thomas Voeckler’s dazzling stage victory yesterday to delight French fans, there was eager anticipation for what had been dubbed the toughest mountainous day of the 2012 Tour de France. There would presumably be multiple attacks as Bradley Wiggins rivals sought to put some time in to the yellow jersey leader before the final high stages in the Pyrenees next week. Before the start, Fabian Cancellara announced that he would be returning home to be with his wife before the birth of their second child, an added boon for riders of the ilk of Van Garderen, Wiggins and Froome if they could make it to the final time trial prior to the finish in Paris. As soon as the peloton left the neutral zone, breaks were immediately instigated. Robert Gesink and Andriy Grivko among others sought to get away, although a large group of riders was pulled back. Eventually, a monstrous group of 31 got away, with the best placed again being Michele Scarponi (ITA, Lampre) who found himself in yesterday’s breakaway. The entire group looked like this: Samuel Dumoulin (FRA, Cofidis), Johnny Hoogerland (NED, Vacansoleil DCM), Luca Paolini (ITA, Katusha), Robert Gesink and Rob Kruiswijk (NED, Rabobank), Yauheni Hutarovich (BEL, FDJ), Vladimir Karpets (RUS, Movistar), Nicki Sorensen and Chris Anker Sorensen (DEN, Saxobank), Andriy Grivko, Maxim Iglinsky, Robert Kieserlovski and Alexandre Vinokourov (UKR, KAZ CRO, KAZ, Astana), Kevin De Weert and Jerome Pineau (BEL, FRA, Omega Pharma- Quick Step), Michael Albasini (ITA, Orica Greenedge), Koen de Kort, Patrick Gretsch and Yann Huguet (BEL, GER, FRA, Argos-Shimano), Marcus Burghardt, Steve Cummings and Philippe Gilbert (GER, GBR, BEL, BMC) Yaroslav Popovych (UKR, RadioShack-Nissan), Davide Malacarne (ITA, Europcar), Ruben Perez Moreno (SPA, Euskaltel-Euskadi), Grega Bole (ITA, Lampre), Daniel Martin (IRL, Garmin-Sharp) and Christophe Riblon (FRA, Ag2r-La Mondiale).
As the foot of the Col de La Madeleine drew near, higher profiles riders such as Chris Horner (USA, RadioShack-Nissan), Ivan Basso (ITA, Liquigas-Cannondale), Alejandro Valverde (SPA, Movistar) and Pierre Rolland (FRA, Europcar) deigned to join the attack, the latter alongside teammate Christophe Kern (FRA, Europcar). Sky were content for these riders to escape as although dangerous, none were closer than 9 minutes down in the general classification. Soon, a distinct gap had opened up over the peloton as climbing began in earnest. With the leading group of 26 (having been joined by Levi Leipheimer) 1’42’’ only 5km from the top of the climb, Lieuwe Westra (NED, Vacansoleil DCM) quit the Tour, clearly struggling. 2 more riders joined the group as Fredrik Kessiakoff (SWE, Astana) and Peter Velits (SVK, Omega Pharma) attacked towards the top, looking to pick up King of the Mountains classification points. Velits took 25 with Kessiakoff second with 20. The pace ramped up on the descent with the intermediate sprint stage in between the two HC climbs of the day. The peloton crossed over 3 minutes behind the leaders with no attack by the likes of Nibali on the descent today. However, soon after the intermediate sprint point, a small bunch of riders broke off the front of the escape group, including Rolland, Scarponi, Kessiakoff, Velits, Dmitry Trofonov, Kiryienka and Valverde. As the leaders and peloton reached the base of the Col de la Croix de Fer climb, Edvald Boasson-Hagen dropped off the front of the peloton, his work done for the day, with Christian Knees taking over pulling duties. With Christophe Kern and Rolland driving the pace on the escape group, Basso, Leipheimer, Scarponi and Valverde all cracked, while the peloton was rapidly disintegrating.
With 60km to go, both Mark Renshaw and Bauke Mollema found the going too tough and exited the tour before Cadel Evans finally attacked from the peloton, something that we had eagerly anticipated for many days now. The move from BMC was cleverly compounded by the fact that Tejay Van Garderen, his young teammate, had sprinted up the road some time ago to wait for Evans if he bridge the gap. While this proved the case, Sky didn’t panic in the slightest, Michael Rogers slowly cranking up the pace to bring Evans back to the GC bunch. 15 riders remained in the Maillot Jaune group as Kern cracked from the front near the top of the climb. At the top of the 2nd climb, Kessiakoff took the points from Rolland to claim a 5000 euro bonus prize before a brief descent took the leaders to a small Cat.2 climb, the final ramp before La Toussuire. Rolland took the 5 points here as Kessiakoff backed away, his work done for the day in securing the Polka Dot jersey for tomorrow. Rolland crashed on the lengthy descent before picking himself up and fighting back to Kieserlovski and Kiryienka upfront. With 20km remaining and only the final climb to come, all the main GC contenders were in Wiggins group, with the notable exception of 5th placed Denis Menchov, the Russian having cracked completely a long way back. Out front, Rolland and Kieserlovski attacked in a bid for glory, still with 3 minutes over the GC bunch who had just commenced the 17km Category 1 climb. However, the drama was yet to truly unfold.
Janez Brajkovic exploded away, immediately matched by the lively Van den Broeck and young Thibaut Pinot. Sky continued plodding away before Vincenzo Nibali jumped forward, aiming to put distance and time between himself and Wiggins. Chris Froome was having none of it however, dragging Wiggins, Evans, Schleck and Van Garderen back to Nibali almost immediately. The Italian jumped forward once again, seeking to perhaps get one over on Wiggins after their war of words in the past few days. At the greatest point, Nibali caught Van den Broeck and Pinot and was nearly 30 seconds clear of Wiggins. Froome looked to be tiring before finding energy from somewhere and launching another comeback attempt. The burst proved too much for Cadel Evans, the defending champion flailing as his young American teammate dropped back to help. Frank Schleck, who was having a markedly better day, stayed with the British pair for a while before slipping away with 5km to go. With a show of superhuman effort, Froome chewed up the ground with ease, Wiggins on his wheel as they caught Nibali, Van den Broeck, Brajkovic and Pinot. In a moment of radio miscommunication, Froome then cracked the entire pack as he surged clear, although when it became clear that Wiggins needed a breather he sat up and the elite group churned on. Up front, Rolland was on his own, nearing a remarkable stage victory, although if Froome had been allowed to go and take Pinot with him it may well have been a close fought thing. However, the young French rider took the stage 55 seconds clear of Pinot and Froome, who still had the strength to sprint to the line, Wiggins, Nibali and Van den Broeck coming in a further 2 seconds back. Cadel Evans gasket had well and truly blown, the Australian finishing nearly 1’30’’ down on his GC rivals and over 2 and a half minutes behind the stage winner, Van Garderen for company. A fantastic victory for Rolland but possibly a decisive blow for Wiggins, Froome and Sky, who extended their lead on potentially the most challenging day of the entire Tour in 2012. After tomorrow, it will possibly be up to sprinters teams to drag the peloton along, but there is still plenty of work to be done before Paris, especially with Nibali and Van den Broeck so game to attack at every possible opportunity.
Stage 12 Preview-
Stage 12 sees the peloton stay in the Alps for one final outing, although the route is much less severe than yesterday, which had been dubbed the most difficult stage on the entire tour in 2012. However, the route from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to Annonay is the longest this year, taking in 226km in total. It is another strategic stage, much like Stage 8, which could well determine the outcome of the points classification prize, particularly if Peter Sagan can reach the finish line with the peloton. There are 2 Cat 1. climbs early in the ride, to the Col du Grand Cocheron at 1,188m and the Col du Granier at 1,134m. If Team Sky can negate those climbs with little difficulty, they may face a dearth of attacks for the latter part of the stage, which includes over 100km of flat and downhill before a sharp Cat.3 hill in the form of the Cote d’Ardoix a mere 25km from the stage finish. No doubt Fredrik Kessiakoff will be along in the breakaway in the early part of tomorrow, seeking to retain the King of the Mountains jersey he picked up on Stage 11. However, a breakaway will be hard pressed to stay away for the entire route owing to its exceptional length. Peter Sagan should get to the end, particularly considering he has plenty of time to recover after the early high climbs, although it could be a stage to suit Sylvain Chavanel. Fabian Cancellara may have fancied it if he hadn’t gone home yesterday.