Bradley Wiggins moved a huge step closer to winning the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné by extending his lead at the top of the standings with a sublime display of climbing on the penultimate stage.
Wiggins was delivered to the foot of the Collet d’Allevard brilliantly by his hard-working team-mates and Edvald Boasson Hagen then split the peloton to shreds by setting a punishing pace on the front.
Only 15 riders remained when the Norwegian peeled off with 6.5km to go, and Wiggins was perfectly positioned to press on up the hors-category ascent alongside his biggest rivals.
Janez Brajkovic (RadioShack) and Cadel Evans (BMC) would both drop back as they struggled towards the summit, but Wiggins battled on and crossed the line in sixth position – 15 seconds ahead of Evans, which saw his general classification lead grow to one minute and 26 seconds.
And Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) was also celebrating after his solo attack inside the final 5km saw him cross the line 31 seconds ahead of runner-up Robert Gesink (Rabobank) to seal the stage victory.
Once again the pace had been rapid from the off and almost two hours passed before Team Sky allowed an eight-man break to move up the road. Simon Gerrans, Juan Antonio Flecha, Rigoberto Uran, Xavier Zandio and Christian Knees quickly assumed control of the bunch and all took long turns on the front to ensure the escapees’ advantage was never allowed to grow much over four minutes.
Indeed, by the time the break had crested the Col du Grand Cucheron they were less than two minutes ahead, and their move had been annulled completely just as they hit the slopes of the Collet d’Allevard.
It was then that Boasson Hagen produced his devastating pull and catapulted Wiggins into a strong position with just one equally tough stage remaining.
After the stage, Sports Director Sean Yates was delighted with the performance his riders had put in, and reserved special praise for the man in the yellow and blue jersey.
He told us: “It was a bloody hard day for the boys but they did some incredible work and then Bradley finished it off, retained the jersey, and put some more time into his nearest challengers.
“We always knew it was going to be tough and it was hectic at the start with lots of groups going away on the Col des Aravis. It was nerve-wracking to watch but we’ve got a strong group here who are able to handle every situation.
“Once that main break had gone we kept a lid on things and then preserved our energies leading up to that final climb. We didn’t actually need to bring the break back because the highest-ranked guy in there was over five minutes down on Bradley, and it was Astana who did that late on.
“With everything back together, Edvald was right there and he shredded the bunch to pieces, then it was up to Bradley to get to the finish line as best he could. He did that to fantastic effect.
“With the gap he had in the GC, he didn’t need to do anything silly and just rode at his own tempo. Everyone else was on their limit on that drag race to the line and I can’t praise him and the team enough for their efforts today.”
Although Wiggins is now in a very strong position, Yates is refusing to take anything for granted and knows anything could happen on the final day of action.
He added: “We’ve still got one day to go and we know what are tactics are going to be. We can’t count our chickens before they hatch and we’ve got to try and at least limit our losses on another tough stage.
“Vinokourov and Evans are unlikely to hit out on the Col du Glandon because it’s miles out, and we’re expecting the fireworks to come instead on the Montée de la Toussuire. It’s up to the boys to do their best again and give Bradley the best possible chance of bringing it home. If he can do that it will be amazing.”