Team Sky this afternoon put in a towering performance on the climb of the Col du Joux-Plane in Stage 6 of the Critérium du Dauphiné , reminiscent of Lance Armstrong's US Postal Service team's dominance on Tour de France ascents a decade or so ago. The stage into Morzine was won by Nairo Quintana of Movistar with BMC Racing's Cadel Evans second, but the day will be remembered most for two things - an Hors Categorie climb that Team Sky in effect treated as a team time trial, leaving some big names in trouble long before the top, and another setback for Andy Schleck's Tour de France preparations as the RadioShack-Nissan rider abandoned early on. Bradley Wiggins now has one more stage to negotiate to successfully conclude his defence of the race he won 12 months ago, and the nearest man to him in the overall standings is now his team mate, Michael Rogers.
If the odds on Wiggins becoming the first British rider to win the Tour de France shortened after dominance of Thursday’s individual time trial which he won convincingly from world champion Tony Martin, they will have come in even further today after the show of strength from the riders who will form the core of his support in that race.
Led by Edvald Boasson Hagen, Team Sky set a punishing pace at the front of the main group as it headed up the Col de Joux-Plane, the final climb of the 167.5 kilometre stage from Saint-Alban-Leysse and the most taxing, going uphill for 11.7 kilometres at an average gradient of 8.4 per cent.
One by one, big name riders were dropped, including Grand Tour winners Denis Menchov of Katusha and Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale. Also going off the back of the group were Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Tony Martin, second overall this morning, and Europcar’s Pierre Rolland, winner of the Alpe d’Huez stage and the best young rider’s white jersey in last year’s Tour de France.
With Richie Porte taking over once Boasson Hagen’s turn was finished, and Rogers, Chris Froome and of course Wiggins tucked in behind at the front of an ever-dwindling group, members of an earlier breakaway were picked off on the ascent, including Brice Feillu of Saur-Sojasun, who had gone on a solo attack on the last but one of the day's climbs.
Only Movistar’s Quintana, who had overhauled the tiring Feillu on that climb now remained on the road ahead, with Team Sky making up four of the nine men in the chasing group, which also contained Evans, isolated from his BMC team mates and today receiving another signal that he faces a real fight from Wiggins for the maillot jaune next month.
Just short of the summit, Evans, four times a runner-up in the Dauphiné, jumped off the front of the group, but he was brought back immediately as the road flattened out after the summit.
On the descent proper, the Australian, by now targeting the stage win – there was no prospect of making a significant dent on the 1 minute 44 seconds advantage Wiggins held over him this morning – attacked again to try and get across to Qunitana.
However, the 22-year-old Colombian – winner of the Tour de l’Avenir in 2010 and the Vuelta a Murcia earlier this season – would not be caught, taking the stage by 16 seconds from Evans, with the Wiggins group crossing the line eight seconds later.
Afterwards, Wiggins said: That was the hardest stage on paper. It was nice to go up the Joux-Plane with such a small group and to still have three team-mates there with me was nice.
"It’s been an ideal situation for us all day today. With the way the break formed, we kept it within three or four minutes and then the guys did their job on the Joux-Plane. It was perfect."
He denied, however, that today's tactics from Sky was a signal to their rivals of what they might be capable of at the Tour.
"We’re trying to do a job and we’re doing it as efficiently and professionally as possible," he explained. "It’s never about sending messages. We've trained for this as a team and each individual has worked just as hard as I have. We’re getting the job done and racing to our strengths. We’re just going one day at a time and everybody’s building towards July."
Evans, however, acknowledged that as a unit, Wiggins and his team mates looked good. "The tempo made by Team Sky climb after climb showed they’re a very strong team. Being alone in Joux-Plane made it difficult for me to attack. It was quite windy as well.
"In the descent, I attacked but I didn’t take any risks," he went on. "I didn’t know exactly how close I was from a possible stage win but I heard that Tony Martin had been dropped and I wanted to maintain my position on the podium. I didn’t have a lot to lose. I didn’t do that for the green jersey.
"Tony Gallopin [of RadioShack-Nissan, who crashed early on and was dropped ahead of the Joux-Plane] was pretty keen for this but now that I have it, I’ll go home with something maybe,” added Evans.
Speaking about Schleck’s decision to abandon the race after 64 kilometres of today’s stagee, RadioShack-Nissan sports director Alain Gallopin told letour.fr: "He couldn’t pedal anymore. Since he crashed during the time trial, the whole right side of his body was hurting. He was climbing all right but he was suffering to hold his bike. Yesterday, he managed to finish but today, racing had become too difficult."
In most circumstances, that statement wouldn’t be questioned, although some would point out that there are plenty of examples of other riders battling on to complete stage races when they have apparently suffered far worse injuries.
In Schleck’s case, the situation is compounded however by his apparent lack of interest in this race even prior to that crash on Thursday’s time trial, questions over his fitness with just three weeks to go until the start of the Tour de France, and reports of ongoing arguments between himself and brother Frank on the one hand, and team manager Johan Bruyneel on the other.
Critérium du Dauphiné Stage 6 result 1 QUINTANA Nairo MOVISTAR TEAM 4h 46' 12" 2 EVANS Cadel BMC RACING TEAM + 00' 16" 3 MORENO Daniel KATUSHA TEAM + 00' 24" 4 WIGGINS Bradley SKY PROCYCLING 5 WEENING Pieter ORICA GREENEDGE 6 FROOME Christopher SKY PROCYCLING 7 KIRYIENKA Vasil MOVISTAR TEAM 8 VAN DEN BROECK Jurgen LOTTO-BELISOL TEAM 9 ROGERS Michael SKY PROCYCLING 10 ZUBELDIA Haimar RADIOSHACK-NISSAN 11 PORTE Richie SKY PROCYCLING + 00' 34" 12 BRAJKOVIC Janez ASTANA PRO TEAM + 00' 44" 13 VAN GARDEREN Tejay BMC RACING TEAM + 01' 12" 14 MACHADO Tiago RADIOSHACK-NISSAN + 01' 30" 15 GENIEZ Alexandre TEAM ARGOS-SHIMANO + 02' 05" 16 KELDERMAN Wilco RABOBANK CYCLING TEAM 17 ROLLAND Pierre TEAM EUROPCAR + 02' 08" 18 LEVARLET Guillaume SAUR-SOJASUN 19 COPPEL Jérôme SAUR-SOJASUN 20 PIRES Bruno TEAM SAXO BANK + 02' 15" Overall Standings after Stage 6 1 WIGGINS Bradley SKY PROCYCLING 23h 40' 59" 2 ROGERS Michael SKY PROCYCLING + 01' 20" 3 EVANS Cadel BMC RACING TEAM + 01' 36" 4 FROOME Christopher SKY PROCYCLING + 01' 48" 5 VAN DEN BROECK Jurgen LOTTO-BELISOL TEAM + 02' 22" 6 KIRYIENKA Vasil MOVISTAR TEAM + 02' 58" 7 BRAJKOVIC Janez ASTANA PRO TEAM + 03' 07" 8 KELDERMAN Wilco RABOBANK CYCLING TEAM + 03' 26" 9 PORTE Richie SKY PROCYCLING + 03' 44" 10 VAN GARDEREN Tejay BMC RACING TEAM + 03' 51"
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.