The Tour de France may be the big summer blockbuster of the cycling season, but the Critérium du Dauphiné has provided an enticing teaser trailer to date, as leading men Cadel Evans (BMC) and Bradley Wiggins (Sky) have strived to deliver all the killer lines during the week thus far.
Against the watch, Wiggins has been clearly superior and delivered a knockdown if not quite a knockout blow in the long time trial to Bourg-en-Bresse on Thursday afternoon. On the open road, however, it is Evans who has been more inclined to throw fortune to the wind, first powering clear to victory on the run-in to Saint-Vallier on Monday and then attempting to repeat the feat on the treacherous descent of the Col du Grand Colombier on stage 5 on Friday.
In an off-the-cuff move, Evans slipped clear in a solid group that included teammates George Hincapie and Tejay van Garderen, as well as Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale), and it took a whole-hearted chase from Wiggins and Sky to bring them back.
"It was Europcar who put a little bit of pressure on the descent as I think they were familiar with it," Evans said. "There were gaps in the peloton and the opportunity presented itself to us. It was a long way to the finish and a long shot but sometimes we have to take those opportunities when they come our way and see what we can do with them."
With Richie Porte in particular putting in a lengthy stint on the front of the peloton, the Evans group was never able to able to stretch its gap much beyond 30 seconds, but while the bomb was quickly defused, the tension lingered a little longer.
Indeed, once the peloton came back within sight of Evans and company, it was Wiggins himself who closed the gap, bridging across alone with a move that spoke volumes about his desire to implicitly but unmistakably remind his rival of his Tour aspirations.
"The team did incredible work afterwards to bring them back and when we had them in sight, I finished the job myself to take some pressure off my teammates," Wiggins said by way of explanation.
The Englishman has looked impregnable throughout this Dauphiné, with Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) among those estimating that Wiggins simply cannot be beaten this week. "I don't think Evans is going to drop Wiggins tomorrow," Schleck said. "I don't think there's anyone who can beat Wiggins here given the way that he's riding."
That said, Wiggins admitted that he and his teammates had been caught napping when Evans swooped over the top of the Grand Colombier. Conditions were treacherous on the greasy and recently patched-up roads on the way down, and they initially approached the descent with a degree of caution.
"We did what we had to do to defend the jersey," Wiggins said. "Approaching the summit of the Grand Colombier we were warned that the descent was dangerous, but some riders forced it and there were breaks in the peloton. Cadel and three of his guys managed to get into that group, and it was a bit of an error on our part."
As Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) pointed out at the finish, however, the road surface was far more amenable near the base of the descent, and Sky and Wiggins were able to make their strength count once again. "We went away on the top of the descent where the roads were wet and then they brought us back when they had started to dry up," he said.
Ultimately, Wiggins and Evans rolled in side by side in the main peloton, although the Australian did get some reward for his endeavour. With Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) distanced on the Grand Colombier, he now moves up into fourth place overall.
"In the end, it was reasonably successful because I think it's moved me up one place on GC," Evans said. "It certainly wasn't a race-winning move, but it was a possibility to help me at least get out on the podium."
Overall, Evans remains 1:44 behind Wiggins ahead of Saturday's queen stage over the Col de Joux Plane into Morzine. Such a gap may prove insurmountable in one day, but there is plenty of scope for some more jostling ahead of the main feature in July.