The BMC team of Tour de France champion Cadel Evans has conceded that his chances of winning back-to-back titles are now "more complicated" after the Australian slipped out of the top three overall in Thursday's 11th stage in the Alps. But the team refuses to accept that hope of victory is over.
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Tough Alps leave Cadel behind
It was one of the toughest stages in the 2012 Tour de France, with four riders pulling out and Cadel Evans dropping to fourth place overall at the end of stage 11 in the French Alps.
An exhausted Evans did not comment after the stage as he normally would, instead riding straight into his team hotel and on to a stationary bike to warm down after the 148km stage from Albertville to La Toussuire. But as Evans spent the first private moments absorbing the impact of a dramatic day's racing that saw Briton Bradley Wiggins (Sky) extend his lead, BMC sports director John Lelangue pledged that he and the team would fight all the way to the finish of the 3496km race in Paris on Sunday week.
"It is getting more and more complicated," Lelangue said, when asked if the prospect of Evans winning a second consecutive Tour was still alive. "[Being] more than three minutes [down overall on Wiggins] is complicated - knowing you have the [53km, stage 19] time trial at the end, that there are not so many mountain top finishes remaining, and also, looking at the team that Sky has here ...
"But we will keep fighting and see. It is always possible and we don't say [now] that it is finished. We will keep fighting for this every day until Paris."
Several hours after the stage, Evans made his feelings known on his personal website.
Evans wrote: "Tough old day today....mountains all day - possibly a chance for an early attack to work, and a solid pace from start to finish made for probably the most physically demanding day of this year's race so far.
"We had a good early move going on the second climb the Col du Fer, with Amaël, Tejay and myself slipping away, but I was not having my best day, so while may have caused havoc behind, it was not a move to make any difference for the main GC contenders.
"On the last climb, I lost a very disappointing amount of time to my main rivals. Not something that pleases me in any way. We continue on the same though, we still have a lot more racing to go, certainly being over three minutes down is long way from optimal - it's far from over yet."
The stage was won by Frenchman Pierre Rolland (Europcar), the winner of last year's stage to Alpe d'Huez. He finished 55 seconds ahead of Frenchman Thibaut Pinot (Francaise des Jeux) and Briton Chris Froome (Sky) and 57 seconds ahead of Belgian Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Wiggins, who were fourth, fifth and sixth on the stage respectively.
Evans, who was dropped on the 18km climb to the finish, was 11th at 2 mins 33 secs, crossing the line with Luxembourg's Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) and his American BMC teammate Tejay van Garderen, who still defended the white jersey as best young rider despite waiting to help Evans.
The fallout means that Wiggins still leads the Tour going into Friday's 12th stage - 226km from Saint Jean de Maurienne to Annonay-Davezieux.
I lost a very disappointing amount of time to my main rivals. Not something that pleases me in any way. We continue on the same though
But he leads by 2 mins 5 secs over Froome, who is now in second place, while Nibali is third at 2 mins 23 secs, and Evans is fourth at 3 mins 19 secs.
The stage was full of drama after an early breakaway of up to 30 riders went away; and no one contributed more to the day’s events than Evans, who boldly attacked on the second of four major climbs - the Col de la Croix de Fer after 81km - two kilometres after Van Garderen set off in pursuit of the stage leaders.
The move was planned, and as risky as it seemed with so far to go before the finish, it appeared to begin well once Evans and Van Garderen united. They immediately settled down and worked together to try and extend their lead, although it appeared Van Garderen's pace at time was too high.
Unfortunately for Evans, the peloton, lead by Australian Michael Rogers (Sky), caught them after five kilometres - four kilometres shy of the Col du Glandon summit.
As Rolland rode on to his eventual stage victory, Rogers was at the front of Wiggins's group until the early pitches of the climb to the finish, after which Richie Porte took his place, then Froome. That forced the group to splinter further, but still it included Evans, Wiggins, Froome and Nibali among others.
Nibali's attack with 12km to go triggered the eventual demise of Evans. It led to a series of accelerations and Evans being dropped with 6.5km left.
Froome created a huge sensation, though, after he recovered from being distanced slightly and attacked with 3.9km to go to distance himself from Wiggins. But Froome eased and Wiggins rejoined him.
Later, Wiggins admitted he was relieved that a stage he said might be the hardest of the Tour was over.
"There’s definitely relief that stage is out of the way. It certainly lived up to being the hardest stage," said Wiggins, who had led the Tour since stage 8.
"Once Cadel had got dropped and we were in that little group, the relief was slightly overwhelming that we had got through this stage and actually have taken more time off Cadel, which we never expected,’’ he said.
"I was more surprised that Cadel attacked on the Glandon because there was a hell of a long way to go still and we were already riding a pretty strong tempo and we still had a fair few guys with Richie [Porte] and Mick [Rogers]. To attack and then to sustain a higher tempo than that and stay away with two climbs to go, I was surprised. It’s not something I would have had the balls to do."