This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Having gone a week without a victory, France celebrated its third consecutive road stage success thanks to Pierre Rolland, who was the last man standing at the summit finish at La Toussuire. Living up to Europcar team manager Jean-René Bernaudeau's promise that Rolland would win this stage, the Frenchman spent most of the day in the break and eventually came home 55 seconds clear of a very select yellow jersey group, which was led in by his young compatriot and fellow stage-winnerThibaut Pinot (FDJ-BigMat).
Sky's Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins were both there, as were Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol). However, defending champion Cadel Evans (BMC) failed to stay with their pace.
The 35-year-old Australian, who was briefly on the attack on the climb of the Glandon, fell back when Froome increased the speed on the front of the yellow jersey group just inside the 5km banner. Although Evans' BMC teammate Tejay Van Garderen was able to pace the Australian, Evans lost almost 90 seconds on his main rivals and dropped out of the top three on GC as Froome moved up to second and Nibali jumped to third.
Sky could hardly have asked for a better conclusion to the day. However, it could have had a very different look to it. With 2km to go, soon after Froome had led Wiggins across to a group containing Nibali, Van den Broeck, Pinot and Janez Brajkovic, Froome accelerated away from the middle of this group, apparently in order to gain as much time as he could on Evans. Such was his speed that he left everyone floundering, most notably his team leader, who was suddenly isolated.
Video: 2012 Tour de France stage 11 highlights (courtesy: ASO)
Video: the final climb to La Toussuire
After little more than a hundred metres, Froome got a message through his radio to ease off and fell back to Wiggins. From that point on he guided Wiggins safely through to the finish. Interviewed just after he had crossed the line, Froome said: "I felt good and had to go. I was just checking the situation on the road and trying to see what was going on. I had fun out there and I was trying to make the most of it."
His team leader Wiggins spoke of a feeling of relief rather than fun. "I am relieved it's over. That was the hardest stage. That feeling was growing as the kilometres passed but in the end it all went well," he said.
"With three kilometres left I could hardly climb at all. The fact that we had dropped Cadel also contributed to that feeling [of relief]. He lost more time than I would have thought. I was surprised to see him attack on the Glandon, which was a long way from the finish and the tempo was already quite high thanks to [Richie] Porte and [Michael] Rogers. It wasn't perhaps the best time to do that. Vincenzo Nibali has shown that he will be dangerous throughout the race. He is improving and his attacks have had a real cutting edge."
All action from the start
As was the case on the previous stage won by Rolland's teammate Thomas Voeckler, there was frantic action right from the off as dozens of riders attempted to get into the day's break. Groups advanced and fell back at regular intervals on the first long ascent of the Madeleine.
More than two dozen riders finally escaped Sky's clutches. Europcar duo Rolland and Christophe Kern soon joined them to make a group of 28. Behind them, Sky's Edvald Boasson Hagen began a phenomenal stint of pace-making that would last until the race was well up the following climb of the Glandon/Croix de Fer.
When Omega Pharma-Quick Step's Peter Velits just edged Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) for maximum points at the top of the Madeleine, the break's advantage on the yellow jersey group was a touch over three minutes. By that point, the break had splintered into several smaller groups. Heading down into the valley before the climb of the Glandon, the Europcar duo of Kern and Rolland and a number of other riders including Movistar's Vasili Kiryienka and Alejandro Valverde, Lampre-ISD's Michele Scarponi, Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank's Chris Anker Sorensen, Astana's Robert Kiserlovski and Omega Pharma-Quick Step's Levi Leipheimer joined up with the two men at the front.
Kern's task soon became evident. He went to the front of the group and drove as hard as he could. The vicious tempo Kern set was too much for all but a handful of riders. Scarponi, Leipheimer and Valverde were among those who wilted.
Evans goes on the attack
After Boasson Hagen finally ran out of gas on the Glandon, Sky's Christian Knees and then Michael Rogers took control at the front of the group containing the main contenders. Knees and especially Rogers drummed out a rapid pace, but it was not enough to prevent best young rider Van Garderen attacking 7km from the summit of the Glandon. Within moments, Evans also accelerated away to join his teammate. When Amaël Moinard dropped back having been in the breakaway group, BMC suddenly had three riders on the attack.
Rogers responded by raising the pace, shredding the group behind a quartet of Sky riders also comprising Porte, Wiggins and Froome. It quickly became clear that Evans's attack was running out of steam. Although Moinard soon dropped away, Van Garderen was full of vim, but Evans couldn't stay on his young teammate's wheel. It wasn't long before both men dropped back in behind Sky's quartet.
By this point the front group was almost at the top of the Glandon. Just before the summit, Kern finally pulled aside, leaving just six riders in the break: Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan), Rolland, Kiserlovski, Kessiakoff, Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank) and Kiryienka. On the very short drop from the Glandon to the 3km climb up to the Croix de Fer, a number of others rejoined this group including Velits and Sorensen.
A number of these riders had been keen to collect King of the Mountains points with current leader Thomas Voeckler well out of the running. Kessiakoff and Rolland were particularly eager and produced an elbow-to-elbow duel at the summit of the Croix de Fer. The Swede took it and regained the polka-dot jersey in the process.
The lead group took on a more definitive look when Velits launched an attack on the second-category climb of the Mollard. Rolland, Sorensen and Kiserlovski joined him. Kiryienka then made it too before Rolland led over the Mollard with the yellow jersey group just three minutes in arrears.
The Mollard is a notoriously tricky descent and Rolland almost fell victim to it, misjudging a hairpin corner and sliding slowly to the ground. Despite some cuts to his already patched left elbow, he was quickly up and racing again, although he continued to look sketchy through corners. The Frenchman did recover, though, rejoining the leading two with Sorensen.
Non-stop action at La Toussuire
After some initial flurries on the early slopes of the long but not overly steep climb to La Toussuire, the leading quartet set a steady pace between them. The situation was changing behind, however, as Rogers finally pulled aside and Porte took over the pace-making for Wiggins. The Australian looked unflustered until first Brajkovic, then Pinot and finally Van den Broeck attacked.
Sky didn't respond, but had to when Nibali also jumped away in an attempt to join these three. Froome went to the front, decimating the yellow jersey group in the process. Froome's push quickly neutralised Nibali's offensive, but the Italian refused to lie down, attacking again with 10km remaining.
Little more than a couple of minutes before, Rolland had attacked at almost the same point, perhaps realising that the yellow jersey group was now closing fast and might be on him before the finish if he didn't respond quickly. His judgement proved spot on as he was the only member of the breakaway group who wasn't reeled in before the line.
Most of that gap was eaten up as the result of Froome's furious pace-making. At one point, the Kenyan-born Brit seemed to blow up as Wiggins went to the front to complete the pursuit of Nibali. But Froome was far from spent. Over the last 5km he found another gear, and Evans couldn't cope with it. The others in the group, including Wiggins, struggled too until Froome was reined in. However, there was no avoiding the conclusion that the rider most capable of toppling Wiggins is riding in the same team.