Bradley Wiggins faced his most difficult day so far in this year's Tour de France with multiple attacks from his opposition, but in a twist of fate, it was his Sky teammate Chris Froome who appeared to place him in the most amount of discomfort. The pair finished the day just two seconds apart with Froome moving into second overall but for a brief moment on the final climb Froome's strength had Wiggins struggling.
The 148-kilometre stage from Albertville to La Toussuire was penciled in as the battle ground to test Wiggins's true mettle on the mountains after the British rider secured yellow last week in Porrentruy. With four cols sandwiched between the start and the mountain top finish in Les Sybelles today, the climbers had to attack.
Cadel Evans (BMC) was the first GC threat to test Sky. Having sent his teammate Tejay van Garderen up the road on the lower slopes of the Col de la Croix der Fer, the Australian soon followed, latching onto van Garderen's wheel. However, with over 60 kilometres to race and with strength in numbers, Sky were able to reel in the defending Tour de France champion.
Although Evans's attack decimated the field, there was a slight regrouping before the final climb to La Toussuire where Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto Belisol) were among those that tried to break Sky's stranglehold on the race. With the key favourites down to just Wiggins, Froome, Nibali, Thibaut Pinot (FDJ-BigMat) and Van den Broeck – Evans had already cracked - Froome accelerated inside the final five kilometres.
All were able to follow except for Wiggins, who briefly dangled off the back of the elite pack as his teammate surged forward. However, the order quickly came over Team Sky's radio into Froome's earpiece that Wiggins was in trouble and order was restored as the yellow jersey holder regained contact.
"At that moment I was just concentrating on my effort and keeping in contact because I'd been riding [at the front] for a two and a half [or] two kilometres before that so we came down on that dip and I just had to clear the lactate," Wiggins said at the finish.
"I didn't want to make any more of an acceleration but there was a lot of noise and things going on [with] the radio and a bit of confusion at that point as to what we were doing really. But yeah, I think he (Froome) showed today that he had the legs, certainly. It was another great day for the team, it really was.
"I didn't have a radio at that point, my piece had fallen out, but this morning we certainly talked about Chris maybe attacking in the final and we'd already got rid of Cadel. This morning we'd talked about him maybe making the 20 odd seconds and moving up into second on GC because Chris wasn't 100 percent confident that he'd have the better of Cadel in the last time trial."
With Wiggins having latched back on, Froome settled his pace to a more measured tempo but the episode provided evidence to suggest that Wiggins is not Sky's strongest rider in the mountains and that the race leader can be unsettled by sharp changes in pace. Sky came home intact, even putting valuable time into Evans and eliminating the threat of Denis Menchov completely, but with Nibali and Van den Broeck both appearing as worthy contenders for yellow they'll have seen cracks in Sky's position.
Still, Wiggins admitted that he was relieved to have overcome today's stage.
"Once Cadel had got dropped and we were in that little group, the sense of relief was sort of slightly overwhelming that we'd actually made it through this stage and we can tick that one off and in fact have taken more time off Cadel which I don't think we ever expected this morning," Wiggins said.
At the Sky team bus Dave Brailsford appeared resolute but displayed some signs of stress. Although clearly pleased with the fact that Wiggins has distanced Evans and that Froome had moved into second on GC, the sight of Wiggins's slightest sign of weakness had been seized upon by the waiting media.
When asked if Wiggins was vulnerable the Sky boss replied with more than a hint of sarcasm: "He looked vulnerable to me, he looks vulnerable in yellow, he's looked vulnerable all week, he's looked vulnerable all season.
"At the end of the day, we're still in 1 + 2 on GC, what a fantastic place to be, and that's all we're worried about."
However, when asked if Wiggins was the strongest rider Brailsford finished with a more direct response. "Look at the result of the time trial. Stands for itself, doesn't it? The fact of the matter is it's your job to make as much as you want out of this. We're in first and second on the Tour de France and let's look for a scandal."