Tuesday 24 October 2017

Wiggins takes yellow as Team Sky blitz rivals on punishing climb

William Fotheringham in La Planche des Belles Filles

Bradley Wiggins joined Tom Simpson, Chris Boardman, Sean Yates and David Millar in the elite group of British cyclists who have worn the yellow jersey in the Tour de France after he and Team Sky took control of the race with Chris Froome winning the stage at the first mountain-top finish and ending the day in the polka-dot jersey of King of the Mountains.

Only defending champion Cadel Evans and Italy's Vincenzo Nibali were capable of holding the pace set by Froome in the final two kilometres, with the Kenyan-born Briton attacking as the gradient reached its steepest to land Sky's third Tour stage, deep in the hills of north-eastern France.

The hug he and Wiggins exchanged after crossing the line spoke volumes. "I knew that Chris had a chance of winning this once we got onto the climb," Wiggins said. "We've ridden our luck this week -- the first part of the Tour can be horrible at times.

"This is an incredible day for us. This is massive for me. The yellow jersey is something I dreamed about as a child."

Irish rider Nicolas Roche enjoyed a good day in the saddle and moved up to eighth overall, just one minute and 22 seconds behind Wiggins, after finishing 11th in yesterday's punishing stage. His cousin Daniel Martin also rode well, finishing in 17th; he now lies in 86th position.

The first mountain-top stage finish of any Tour tends to be a defining moment as the cyclists struggle to adapt from churning large gears on the flat stages to spinning smaller ratios on a major climb. The Planche des Belles Filles is far steeper than usual for a Tour climb, with a final passage close on one-in-four, one of the most severe gradients used for any major race, and that enabled Sky to crush most of the opposition.

It was an implacable display of team riding from Sky, who took control just before the final climb, with first Edvald Boasson-Hagen setting the pace over the top of the penultimate ascent 15km from the finish. After a brief drop to the foot of the last uphill 8.5km, the initial pace was set by the Australians Michael Rogers and Richie Porte, with Froome and Wiggins tucked in behind them.

As Rogers set the pace, gradually Robert Gesink, Levi Leipheimer, Fabian Cancellara and Thomas Voeckler -- the other main contenders -- ceded ground. After that it became clear that if he remained with Evans, Wiggins was riding into the yellow jersey.

At 3.2km, last year's third man overall, Samuel Sanchez, cracked in his turn, by which point there were only six men left with Froome, Porte and Wiggins. Porte gave way to Froome at 2km from the line, and the Briton's acceleration whittled the group down still further, with only Froome, Wiggins, Evans, Nibali and Rein Taaramae in the lead group as the final steep ramp to the summit began. There, Evans was the first to attack as the gradient steepened to about one-in-five, but it was Froome who looked the freshest, making his move 200m from the finish in aggressive style and cresting the summit a few yards in front of the others.

"The last 400m weren't that terrible," he said. "I knew Bradley was in good position for [yellow], I thought I would put in a small acceleration to see if I could get the stage. Richie set a fantastic pace, he dropped so many riders it made it easy for us. The final 2km was hard, I think it surprised a few people."

Mark Cavendish's ambitions for the green jersey were ambiguous at best at the start of the Tour, and having been unable to compete in two of the past three sprint finishes due to crashes, he is more than 80 points adrift of Peter Sagan in the battle for the points title. The Manxman did not contest the intermediate sprint in this stage and he could be seen at the Sky team car not long after the sprint gathering bottles, which he delivered to his team-mates at the front of the bunch. It is rare to see a world champion involved in such menial tasks and it implies that this year Cavendish may have given up on the green jersey.

Today sees the climbing ramp up another notch. There is nothing to compare with Les Belles Filles for steepness, but the brief, brutal leg through the Jura mountains to the Swiss town of Porrentruy includes seven ranked ascents, four second category and one first. They come in quick succession and should be perfect terrain for a long-range attack from some of the climbers who have lost time this week.

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