LA PLANCHE DES BELLES FILLES SKI STATION, France — With two weeks left in the Tour de France, the two-man showdown that many predicted is taking shape, with Britain’s Bradley Wiggins already in the yellow jersey — and driver’s seat — while Cadel Evans isn’t.
The 31-year-old Briton and his Team Sky dominated the race’s first summit finish Saturday, with Christopher Froome winning Stage 7 ahead of Evans and Wiggins close on the Australian defending champion’s back wheel.
In the 123-mile trek from Tomblaine to La Planche des Belles Filles, Wiggins took the overall lead from Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara and gave Britain its first yellow jersey in 12 years — and the first for Sky.
“It’s a great day for the team, we won the stage and took the yellow jersey,” Wiggins said in French. “This is my first time in the yellow jersey. It’s incredible — it’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid.”
As the pack disintegrated on the final climb, Evans tried an attack just before the super-steep patch in the last half-mile, but Froome beat him and made it look easy, leading Evans to wonder what he might be in for later.
Cancellara, a time-trial and one-day classics specialist who had worn yellow since winning the prologue a week ago, was 1 minute, 52 seconds behind Froome — but more importantly 1:50 back of Wiggins.
The Sky leader, who began the day 7 seconds behind Cancellara in second place, leads Evans by 10 seconds. Vincenzo Nibali of Italy was fourth to climb to third overall, 16 seconds behind.
Wiggins, a three-time Olympic track gold medalist looking to become Britain’s first Tour champion, became the pre-race favorite after winning the Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine stage races this year.
Wiggins has more breathing room than Cancellara when he was leader. Only five riders are within a minute of Wiggins, including Denis Menchov of Russia, who won the 2009 Giro d’Italia and the Spanish Vuelta — twice. The Swiss rider, by contrast, had had 22 riders within 48 seconds of his lead as Saturday’s stage began.
With two time trials and more climbing days in the Alps and Pyrenees still to come, Wiggins played down speculation that he might’ve taken the lead too early with the finish in Paris on July 22.
“You can’t get too cocky in this race and choose when you take the yellow jersey. I’d much rather be in yellow than in hospital — like half the peloton,” he said, referring to injuries from crashes in recent days.
Race organizers also tallied Saturday the full fallout of two bunch crashes a day earlier, including a high-speed one as riders were jockeying for position in a final sprint. A total of 13 riders dropped out due to injuries in the spills, bringing the number of withdrawals through seven stages to 17 — the highest number at this point since 1998.
One of them was Garmin-Sharp leader and Giro champion Ryder Hesjedal of Canada.
Wiggins crashed out of the 2011 Tour with a broken collarbone and said he felt “lucky” he has been trouble-free this year.
Uncertainties remain and two weeks is a long time. But all signs read green for Wiggins: Sky is one of the strongest teams; it has launched a methodical approach to winning; the route this year is heavily weighted on time-trials which are his specialty. And with two-time Tour champion Alberto Contador out serving a doping ban, and 2010 winner Andy Schleck out injured, that’s two fewer would-be challengers.
Evans sensed he’s in for a challenge from Sky.
“With Wiggins on a team like that, it’s going to be difficult,” the 35-year-old BMC team leader said in French.
Froome, who took the polka-dot jersey as the Tour’s best climber, said he was surprised Evans couldn’t keep pace. The Australian was puffing and his face glistening with sweat as he crossed the finish.
“I kept waiting for him to go, but he never really went. To me that says one thing — that he didn’t have the legs,” Froome said. “It really wasn’t a big acceleration that I put in. I went for it and just coasted toward the line.
“Hopefully he’s not holding anything back, and he’s not going to surprise us in the next few days. I think that he and Bradley looked to be quite on par.”
Wiggins said he was focusing on Evans.
“It’s never over until it’s over, and obviously Cadel is still the defending champion. You saw today, he just never gives up — and that’s going to be the Cadel that we are going to see,” Wiggins said. “It’s one day down of many to come, so just savor today.”
Asked if it was a two-man race, Wiggins said: “It’s looking that way.”
Team manager Dave Brailsford acknowledged Sky would be having an upbeat evening Saturday for the stage win and yellow jersey, plus other positive signs like strong climbs from Richie Porte and Froome.
“We managed to stay out of trouble during that first week, that was important. We had a bit of a question mark about Richie because he crashed three times yesterday,” he said. “But he was good.”
“And Froome showed (them) today … Everybody was, ‘You know in the Vuelta, where does this guy come from?’ He showed today he can back it up. And he’s one of the best climbers in the peloton right now.”
The stage marked the first of three summit finishes this year. Nimbler climbers took the limelight after a first week dominated by sprinters across the flatter regions of Belgium and northern France.
The final ascent to La Planche des Belles Filles, at 3.1 miles, was relatively short as far as the Tour’s biggest climbs go. But it was steep, with a grueling 14-percent gradient in the last 500 yards.
The Tour, in its 99th edition, had never previously led riders to La Planche des Belles Filles. According to the legend, centuries ago, a group of beautiful young French women — the “belles filles” — committed mass suicide in black waters of a lake to escape the looming clutches of Swedish invaders. But the leader of the Nordic horde had fallen in love with one of the women, and pulled out her lifeless body — carving a wooden epitaph to honor them.
The three-week race takes riders on another bumpy ride on Sunday, with seven climbs in the 97.5-mile loop from Belfort to Porrentruy in Stage 8. The Tour ends July 22 in Paris.