LA TOUSSUIRE, France — Try as they might, rivals of Bradley Wiggins can’t take his yellow jersey.
The three-time Olympic track champion, looking to become Britain’s first Tour de France winner, beat back repeated attacks Thursday in a crucial Alpine stage won by ace French climber Pierre Rolland.
As Stage 11 began, Wiggins’ main challengers were planning to unsettle him in the 92-mile ride along three big climbs from the 1992 Winter Olympics town of Albertville to the ski station at La Toussuire.
First, defending champion Cadel Evans took a shot at Wiggins on the longest climb — a tactic some questioned. On the way to the uphill finish, Belgium’s Jurgen Van Den Broeck tried, too. Then Vincenzo Nibali did, twice.
Each time, Wiggins steadily, meticulously reeled them in.
Evans petered out early. The 35-year-old Australian was dropped by Wiggins and others who finished nearly a minute behind Rolland. Evans began the day in second place, but finished 1 minute, 26 seconds behind Wiggins and fell to fourth overall. He’s now 3:19 back.
The Briton also dispensed with Russia’s Denis Menchov, who won the Spanish Vuelta twice and the Italian Giro once. He began the day 3:02 back in fifth place but lost more than 13 minutes to Wiggins.
Overall, Wiggins leads Sky teammate Christophe Froome, who rose to second, by 2:05. Nibali is third, 2:23 back. Van Den Broeck is fifth, 4:48 behind.
Wiggins also patched things up with Nibali, who a day earlier hadn’t taken kindly to a seeming glare from the Sky leader. As they finished together Thursday, Wiggins gave him a peacemaking pat on the back.
The Alpine stage shaped up as a pivotal moment because mountains and time trials tend to determine who wins the Tour. Wiggins’ rivals saw it as their chance to strike. He looks unstoppable in the time trials: He won one Monday and another one comes the day before the July 22 finish in Paris. Their last opportunity could await in yet another uphill finish in the Pyrenees next Thursday.
Rolland, a 25-year old Europcar rider, gave his team its second straight stage victory. It was his second in two years following his victory on the fabled Alpe d’Huez in 2011.
The joy of victory contrasted with his “immense pain” weeks earlier. Two days before the Tour start, a French sports daily revealed a previously unknown investigation of his team over allegations of improper use of a controlled substance in the 2011 Tour. The team denies the claim.
But fans in Belgium — where the race began June 30 — jeered at some Europcar riders, and Rolland said he was spit on.
“The evening after the prologue I was really down,” he said. “I told myself: ‘If that’s what the Tour is all about, I’d rather go home.'” He said the fans’ reaction at home in France has been more charitable.
And yet another doping controversy — like the many that have battered cycling’s image in recent years — lingered in the background Thursday.
Judicial officials in Marseille said Remy Di Gregorio was placed under investigation Thursday as part of a doping inquiry. The Cofidas rider was arrested at a team hotel Tuesday and is suspected of illegal possession of doping products or equipment.
Rolland had to pick himself up Thursday after a crash on the winding downhill from the stage’s third climb. He unclipped from his pedal and hit the ground on a sharp turn, but quickly got back on his bike.
The route was brutal, with at least 40 miles of climbs over two of the most grueling ascents in cycling, plus a very tough uphill finish. Under a relentless sun, riders’ faces reflected the agony: tongues wagging, teeth gritting, mouths agape.
One crucial moment, possibly with the title in the balance, came when Evans tried to shake Wiggins, about halfway up the 6,750-foot Croix de Fer (Iron Cross) pass.
The Australian caught up with BMC teammate Tejay Van Garderen, a promising American rider, and was able to chisel out a lead of about 15 seconds on Wiggins.
But the Sky train of riders, in a line and pedaling almost in sync, powered with a steady rhythm to escort Wiggins back up front, and gradually erased the Australian’s getaway about three miles later. Some of Evans’ rivals questioned his tactic of attacking on the Iron Cross.
“You’ve got to admire him for trying,” Froome said.
On the last climb, Van Den Broeck, and then Nibali, gave it a try. This time, Wiggins was more vulnerable because his teammates — aside from Froome — had fallen back. But Wiggins caught them, too.
Evans, seemingly spent by his earlier attack, lost ground. He was unable to keep up with Van Garderen, who dutifully stayed back to help his team leader as best he could. Crossing the line, Evans let out a sigh. He didn’t speak as rode through a scrum of reporters on way to a team hotel.
John Lelangue, the BMC team manager, acknowledged that the title defense was “getting more and more complicated.”
Van Garderen, a 23-year-old rider from Montana, said he was ready to help Evans speed ahead on the final climb.
“Before he lost contact, I was saying, ‘Hey, if you have the legs you should go because Wiggins is looking a little isolated,'” Van Garderen said. “And then next thing you know he (Evans) was coming off the back.”
Froome, meanwhile, accelerated in a dramatic final dash, passing Wiggins. The Sky leader said such a move was in the team plan, so that Kenyan-born Froome — who had been third — could take time on Evans.
“At that moment, I was really just really concentrating on my effort and keeping it constant,” Wiggins said.
The race stays in the Alps on Friday with a 141-mile ride from Saint-Jean-De-Maurienne to Annonay Davezieux.