Tour de France Blog: Stage Seven - Nine
British sports fans may still be mourning Andy Murray’s loss in Sunday’s Wimbledon final, but down in France an even greater potential achievement is in the making. Bradley Wiggins is currently leading the Tour de France by an already healthy margin of nearly two minutes, with teammate and fellow Brit Chris Froome in third sandwiching defending champions Cadel Evans in second. Wiggins was the pre-race favourite, but his dominance in the race thus far has even exceeded the already high expectations of the media and spectators.
Wiggins inherited the yellow jersey from week one leader Fabian Cancellara on Saturday’s stage seven, the ever revealing first mountain top finish. This is traditionally the stage where the strongest riders first emerge to the front and establish themselves as the genuine contenders for the yellow jersey, and this time round the trio of Wiggins, Evans and Nibali, predicted on this website to make the final podium, all made it together to the final sprint in the lead group.
Beating them to the line however was rising star Froome, who had enough in reserve despite pacing Wiggins up the final few kilometres to jump ahead and win the stage. At just 27 Froome is arguably an even greater talent than Wiggins, with a faster acceleration uphill and a higher Grand Tour finish having finished second to Wiggins’s third at last season’s Tour of Spain, but for now his role remains to work for Wiggins, though it is fair to say that his time will come.
Another bright talent for the future looks set to be Thibaut Pinot, the 22 year old Frenchman who to his nation’s joy took a solo win in stage 8. After a hectic start to the day Pinot got himself into the break and proved himself the best climber in the group, dropping them all and catching early attacker Fredrik Kessiakoff (whose aggressive riding sees him lead the mountains classification) on the final climb, holding on to the finish to claim France’s first win of the 2012 Tour, much to the visible delight of manager Marc Madiot, who likely injured someone in a post-race bear hug frenzy. Every year France goes crazy for some new up and coming rider to become the man to end their baron run without a Tour winner, and all in the last 27 years have flattered to deceive, but at just 22 and with genuine climbing ability Pinot may be the real deal. The time trial however saw him fall away in the best young rider’s classification, in which the talented trio of fellow Frenchman Tony Gallopin, Rein Taaramae and current leader Tejay Van Garderen look set to contest.
Behind Pinot in stage eight rolled in a group of ten or so GC riders, all of whom saved themselves for stage nine’s all important time trial. But no-one could get close to Wiggins, who obliterated the field in a remarkable display of composure and speed to win his first ever Tour de France stage. Closest to him was teammate Chris Froome, who would be likely be Wiggins’ main rival were he not on the same team. Vincenzo Nibali, Denis Menchov and veteran wheel-sucker Haimar Zubeldia all posted strong times that reaffirmed their positions within the top 6, but such was Wiggins’ supremacy that even their impressive showings leave them far adrift from his yellow jersey, two minutes down with, worryingly, an even longer time trial to come.
These riders however are those most likely to at least challenge the British duo, as the other pre-race favourites have all dropped out of contention. Belgian Jurgen Van Den Broeck has looked strong, but an unlucky mechanical problem shortly before the final climb on stage seven and disappointing time trial see him lie only in ninth. Crashes and the long time trial has seen over eight minutes been put into Frank Schleck, removing him from contention, while falls too have seen other pre-race outside favourites Rdyer Hesjedal and Samuel Sanchez abandon, and Alejandro Valverde and Robert Gesink have shown no form.
Evans, Nibali and co. will have to be inventive in how they gain time over the next two weeks, as Sky’s dominance is so complete with domestiques Richie Porte and Mike Rogers, and Brits Wiggins and Froome looking so accomplished in the time trial that the conventional ways of making time look impossible. Evans has the advantage on steep uphill finishes and Nibali on the descendents, so Wiggins’ lead will be challenged, but at present it is very difficult not to envision the Brit (or a Brit) going on to win our first ever Tour. The nation waits.