Bradley Wiggins was the favourite to pull on the maillot jaune at the end of stage 7 from Tomblaine to La Planche des Belles Filles but even the Team Sky leader was surprised the damage he and his team did to their rivals.
After just the first mountain top finish in this year’s Tour de France, the battle for the overall looks to down three – four if you count Wiggins’s teammate Chris Froome – riders with Cadel Evans and Vincenzo Nibali still in the hunt and able of challenging Wiggins. After yesterday’s stage to Metz which saw a number of the pure climbers lose time and skin in a crash, the pressure was on Wiggins’s rivals to claw back time ahead of Monday’s crucial time trial.
"I was just concentrating on Cadel and I didn’t lose any time to him. It worked out ideal but I saw afterwards on the telly that there were only four of us left around that final corner which I was surprise about for sure because I thought there would be 15 guys at the summit. It’s a good sign for us, for sure," Wiggins said.
In a carbon copy of their success in Paris-Nice, Tour of Romandie, Volta ao Algarve, Tour of Norway, Bayern-Rundfahrt and Critérium du Dauphiné, Team Sky were on the front foot, dictating a pace that not only nullified any attacks but cracked a number of rivals. By the top of the final climb only Nibali and Evans were present, with Denis Menchov, Frank Schleck, Samuel Sanchez, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Janez Brajkovic and Robert Gesink all losing time.
Asked if he was surprised that none of his rivals had attacked, Wiggins said: "I was little bit. I knew I was dictating the pace and that I wanted to keep it high threshold and not go too much into the red and I knew that if someone wanted to attack off that pace they’d have to be going quite a bit more, which I know is not really sustainable if we’re riding at 470 to 480 Watts. Someone is going to have to go a lot harder to sustain that. As long as we gauge it like that I knew we’d be alright."
The Tour is yet to reach its halfway point but with two time trial stages to come, Wiggins will know that he is in the driving seat. However as race leaders he and Sky will need to measure their efforts carefully over the next two weeks. While La Planche des Belles Filles allowed Sky to demonstrate their climbing prowess this year’s race will not be won by just the measure of Watts and heart rate. Having crashed out of last year’s race Wiggins will hope that luck is also on his side.
As for his rivals, Evans and Nibali, they perhaps will not be too concerned by the day’s events. Both are still within touching distance and unlike Wiggins have proven records in winning three-week stage races – both are also known for improving inside the final week of a Grand Tour. Wiggins's best three-week result came in last year’s Vuelta where he finished third but he told the press after pulling on yellow that he had improved as a rider in the intervening months.
"We’ve really trained to the demands of this year’s Tour so one of the areas we’ve worked on was the steeper climbs. It was one of the areas I wasn’t comfortable with in the past. I had a lot of rehab to do last year after I broke my collarbone and one of the things that was flagged up in the Vuelta last year, that I had no upper body strength, especially on the side that I broke my collarbone on. It was something that I worked on in the gym and I really improved all my core strength and upper body strength. We’ve covered every area."