BELLEGARDE-SUR-VALSERINE, France — Thomas Voeckler nearly opted out of the Tour de France weeks ago because of an injured knee. Two days before the start, he was pained even more over allegations of doping by his French team.
On Wednesday, the crowd-pleasing Frenchman gave his response — by winning the 10th stage.
An in-your-face, trash-talking atmosphere dominated as riders entered the Alps on Wednesday with Bradley Wiggins retaining the yellow jersey by squashing attacks by rivals — one of whom complained that the Briton wasn’t being respectful.
The mood was decidedly sour before the 120.9-mile ride began along three hard climbs, after Tuesday’s rest day was marred by an arrest by French police of a Cofidis team rider over a Marseille doping probe.
Doping cases past and present have cast a shadow over this Tour.
Voeckler, too, was burdened by the issue of doping. Two days before the Tour start, a French newspaper brought to light a previously unknown probe of his Europcar team on allegations of improper use of a controlled corticoid by its riders during last year’s Tour — a claim the team vigorously denies.
Some fans in Belgium, where the Tour started on June 30, booed Europcar riders following the news.
Voeckler’s victory was “really special because we had criticism before the Tour, because it really hurt me,” he said. His victory “is a part of my answer — not my revenge — an answer” to the critics.
Wiggins, too, and his Team Sky sent a message on Wednesday: Getting the yellow jersey off him won’t be easy. Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali, one of several rivals who tried to strip it, complained of a lack of respect from the Briton.
At several points during the stage, Wiggins came under attack from his biggest rivals, but nearly all failed to make up any ground. Nibali tried to surge ahead in a big descent, Belgium’s Jurgen Van Den Broeck attempted to jump ahead on the day’s big climb, and reigning champion Cadel Evans tried to shake Wiggins near the end — to no avail.
“Wiggins looked at me at the finish and I really did not like the way he did it,” said Nibali, who won the Spanish Vuelta in 2010 and is fourth overall at the Tour. “He also gestured with his hand in an unpleasant way.
“They are really strong at the moment, but he should show more respect for his competitors,” Nibali said.
Sky has controlled the Tour in a style reminiscent of that of the former U.S. Postal team of Lance Armstrong, who is facing allegations by U.S. anti-doping officials that he used performance-enhancing drugs.
Wiggins has bristled at the comparison of the teams in social media.
On Wednesday, notably after the new Cofidis case, the Briton said he understood questions on doping in cycling “from some parts of the media,” but insisted he got to where he is through hard work.
“I don’t feel like I have to sit here and justify to everyone … To me, it’s them pissing all over everything I’ve done by just saying ‘he’s cheating’ — or whatever. And that’s what really gets to me,” he said.
Wiggins also echoed comments in the past by Armstrong, who repeatedly said he never failed a drug test and said during his career that he was the world’s most-tested athlete for doping.
“Tested by the UCI — God knows how many times a year, God knows how many times on this race, and on the Dauphine; blood tested every morning and all that,” Wiggins said, referring to international cycling’s governing body UCI and the Criterium du Dauphine race. “What more can I do than that?”
For the first time in the Tour, the peloton scaled the 10.9-mile Grand Colombier pass — classified as one of the hardest climbs in pro cycling in part for two tough patches with steep, 12 percent gradients.
Voeckler, who once had the yellow jersey taken off him by Armstrong and wore it again last year for 10 days, earned his third Tour stage victory in a decade-long career competing in cycling’s premier race.
Near the finish, Voeckler dusted off a breakaway group, beating runner-up Michele Scarponi of Italy by 3 seconds. Jens Voigt of Germany — at 40, the oldest rider this year — was third, another 4 seconds slower.
Voeckler said he didn’t ride for about 10 of the 20 days immediately preceding the Tour start because of knee pain that still hasn’t fully gone away — and almost kept him from competing altogether.
“It was pretty straightforward today,” said Wiggins, the Team Sky leader. “Fortunately the break went pretty early and we didn’t have to go crazy (chasing it) … it all sort of went to script today, really.”
Wiggins finished the stage 3:16 behind Voeckler, in 13th place, in a group including most of his rivals in the quest to win the yellow jersey when the Tour ends in Paris on July 22.
With Wiggins under a close escort by his Sky teammates, only Van Den Broeck was able to erase 32 seconds with a surge late in the stage. The Belgian trails Wiggins by 4:48 in eighth place.
Overall, Wiggins leads Evans by 1:53. Wiggins’ teammate, Christopher Froome, is 2:07 back in third place. Nibali is fourth, 2:23 back, and Russia’s Denis Menchov fifth, 3:02 behind.
Riders embark Thursday on what Wiggins calls the hardest stage this year — a relatively short 92-mile trek from Albertville to La Toussuire, but with two of the toughest climbs in pro cycling and an uphill finish.