FOIX, France — Crashes, falls, fractures – Bradley Wiggins has seen it all. Now add tacks and nails to list. Still, nothing can break his stranglehold on the Tour de France.
On a day of sabotage in the Pyrenees, Wiggins had luck on his side. He avoided the chaos and spent another trouble-free stage as his Sky team controlled his main rivals to protect his yellow jersey.
At least 30 riders were disrupted by tire punctures at the top of the final climb after tacks and small nails were tossed on the road. Tour officials asked police to investigate.
Defending champion Cadel Evans was caught in the havoc. He had to wait three times for assistance. He lost nearly two minutes at one point before teammates arrived and gave the former world champion a rear wheel.
But Wiggins honored cycling etiquette by not attempting to capitalize on Evans’ misfortune. He urged the peloton to slow down to allow Evans to return to the pack. Wiggins and Evans finished in the same time – 18 minutes, 15 seconds behind Luis Leon Sanchez, of Spain, who won the 119-mile, 14th stage between Limoux and Foix.
This was the first day of racing in the Pyrenees, and Wiggins kept his overall lead of 2:05 over Sky teammate Christopher Froome. Vincenzo Nibali, of Italy, is third, 2:23 off the pace while Evans remains fourth, 3:19 behind.
After crashing out of the race with a broken collarbone last year, Wiggins has been enjoying the perfect Tour so far with the help of a team dedicated to his quest for cycling’s top prize.
With only two big mountain stages remaining before the race ends in Paris next Sunday, and a long time trial where Wiggins is expected to blow his rivals apart, the former Olympic track champion looks all but guaranteed to become the first Brit to win the Tour. Yet, he is well aware of the dangers that can arise anywhere.
“What can you do? It’s something we can’t control,” Wiggins said, referring to the sabotage.
“There’s nothing stopping more of that sort of stuff happening. It’s sad. Those are the type of things we have to put up with as cyclists. I think people take that for granted sometimes, just how close they can get to us. If that happened in a football stadium, or wherever, you’d be arrested.”
From time to time, stray dogs or photograph-snapping fans get hit by speeding riders. On Friday, Wiggins was hit on the arm and received minor burns from a flare waved by a spectator. Three years ago, Oscar Freire and Julien Dean were hit by pellets from an air rifle.
“We’re out there, quite vulnerable at times, very close to the public on climbs,” Wiggins said. “We’re just the riders at the end of the day and we’re there to be shot at, literally.”
Speaking on French TV, race director Jean-Francois Pescheux commended Sky for encouraging the pack to not speed ahead. He said the search for the culprit would be difficult because thousands of fans were on the edge of the road.
“This could have had terrible consequences on a descent like that,” Tour director Christian Prudhomme said. “This is dangerous and stupid behavior.”
Astana rider Robert Kiserlovski dropped out of the race after breaking his collarbone in an accident related to the tacks. Wiggins escaped although he did change bikes in the final descent.
“We’re really, really lucky, nobody punctured,” Sky manager Dave Brailsford said. “Brad changed his bike but no panic. It was obvious something was wrong. So he decided to slow down a bit and not take advantage of it. It’s pretty obvious that when something like that happens, it’s not bike racing. I think fair play to Bradley. It was a very sportsmanlike gesture.”
Evans, his chances of winning are all but gone, lost the Spanish Vuelta three years ago after being delayed by a wheel change during the 13th stage.
“That’s the way things go in life. Karma hopefully comes around,” Evans said. “I couldn’t see (the tacks) on the road. It happened to me three times and at crucial moments. This has happened to me before, two times in Spain, that’s why I don’t race in Spain very often. Sorry for the good Spanish people and my Spanish friends and people in Spain who support me. But there’s a few people that just take things too far.”
Pierre Rolland of France was the only rider who attacked after Evans’ puncture.
“I don’t know whether he knew or not,” Wiggins said. “I knew straight away something had happened. I just thought it was a little bit uncouth at that time. The stage was gone. ... It didn’t seem the honorable thing to do.”
Rolland, ninth overall and 8:31 behind Wiggins, said he was not aware of what happened.
“I’m someone who respects the peloton and its codes and I would never have attacked a rider who punctured,” Rolland said. “It saddens me a bit.”
Sanchez used his time trial experience for his solo victory. He was among a group of five riders who broke away on the Mur de Peguere, apparently before the tacks were thrown.
He then made his decisive move seven miles from the finish to win a Tour stage for the fourth time in his career. Slovakia’s Peter Sagan, who has the green jersey as top sprinter, finished second, 47 seconds behind Sanchez. France’s Sandy Casar was third in the same time.
“With Philippe Gilbert and Sagan in the breakaway, I knew that my only chance was to try my luck on my own from far away,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez, hampered by a wrist injury during the first week, crossed himself and pointed his fingers toward the sky as he went over the finish line.
Sagan and two other riders escaped from the peloton after 22 miles during the descent after the first climb. Eight riders, including Gilbert, Casar and Sanchez, then broke away in pursuit of the trio and bridged the gap while the second peloton caught up with the yellow jersey’s group. With none of the 11 escapees posing a threat in the overall standings, they were given the freedom to continue.
Despite rain and cooler weather, the ascent was uneventful. Wiggins’ teammates set the tempo at the front of the pack while the Briton’s rivals did not dare a move.