Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome moved another step closer to sealing a Tour de France 1-2 for Team Sky after covering off a dangerous move from Vincenzo Nibali in the Pyrenees.
The Italian (Liquigas-Cannondale) made his dig on the final climb of the Col de Peyresourde, accelerating away from a reduced peloton on the steep first-category ramps.
Wiggins and Froome were the only riders to react, the British duo working together to shut down the threat on what proved to be a brutal mountain stage.
The trio rode into the finish in Bagneres-de-Luchon together after solidifying their podium positions over their rivals on a scorching day in Southern France.
Up ahead Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) spent the day in the break before taking his second solo stage victory of the race, fending off Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) by one minute and 40 seconds for another famous victory, sealing the polka dot jersey in the process.
The day did not go to plan for defending champion Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), the Australian dropping almost five minutes to the yellow jersey after being distanced on the day’s final two climbs.
Wiggins retains a lead of 2:05 over Froome, and 2:23 over Nibali, after the first of a tough mountain double-header in the Pyrenees.
After the stage Wiggins, spending his tenth consecutive day in yellow, summed up the test, saying: “The team were brilliant from the off and we knew what we had to do. It was just a case of doing what we’ve been doing since the start of this race which is riding together as a team. It was another tough one, and obviously there weren’t many bodies left at the end. It’s good to get that one out of the way.
“This is what we’ve trained for and that’s what we’ve prepared for. We’ve trained for the demands of this race and for the demands of what this race consisted of in the third week. I think that’s what makes us the best riders in this race. All year it’s been about this and training in this kind of heat and for these climbs. The fitness and the recovery has been a team effort. The backroom staff - with the hydration when the stages finish and those little things all add up over the three weeks.
“(Vincenzo) Nibali was really concentrating on his podium spot today and I think he really wanted to distance Cadel (Evans) before the final time trial which he did. It was tough but it’s another day we can tick off.
“On paper tomorrow’s stage doesn’t look as hard as it was today. It’s certainly a lot shorter and there will be a lot of tired bodies out there after today. It’s a case of people recovering and who recovers best at this stage. The one thing I keep saying is that no one has it easy out there. We’re all in the same boat and we all have to do the same course and tomorrow is another day.”
After a fast start an abnormally large breakaway group of 38 riders went clear as the race headed out of Pau, the action resuming following the second rest day.
The fight for the polka dot jersey provided an interesting sub-plot to the stage, with overnight leader Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) joining rivals Voeckler and Sorensen in the break on a day which saw big points on offer over four categorised climbs.
Team Sky returned to the front of the bunch to set a rhythm throughout the day, Christian Knees and Edvald Boasson Hagen working hard on the front as the riders crest the hors-categorie Col d’Aubisque and Col du Tourmalet climbs.
Wiggins’ rivals were weary of attacking too early, but on the penultimate climb over the Col d’Aspin, Nibali’s team arrived on the front to push the pace, a move which put Evans into difficulties and thinned out the peloton.
While up ahead Voeckler pushed onwards, Liquigas-Cannondale and Lotto-Belisol took up the pace-setting duties on the approach to the Peyresourde. Nibali finally put in a burst of acceleration, Froome and Wiggins closing the gap briefly, before kicking again.
The trio came back together towards the summit of the climb before Nibali attacked one final time, this time Wiggins putting the power down to swiftly stamp out the threat.
Four to go
After the stage Sean Yates was full of praise for the poise the team showed in the heat.
He said: “The boys were amazing yet again. It’s got to the point where whatever we say isn’t doing them justice. This is no ordinary stage race. It’s the Tour de France and we are into the third week now and they have been consistently amazing.
“Everyone is hurting in the race but it panned out really well for us today. The break went without anyone really dangerous in it so we could just ride. Liquigas took it up a bit in a bid to get rid of Cadel. Then Brad and Froomey had the legs to follow Nibali when he tried to get away.
“It was probably the toughest stage of the Tour so to come through that in the manner we have done is a great achievement for the team.”
The race continues on Thursday with another mountainous 143.5km from Bageres-de-Luchon to Peyragudes.