Bradley Wiggins gave the British their first Tour de France leader in 12 years on Saturday, wresting the yellow jersey from Fabian Cancellara after being helped by a powerful escort in the race’s mountain debut.
In the Tour’s first big shake-up, Team Sky were dominant up the first summit finish to allow Christopher Froome to win the seventh stage from Tomblaine to La Planche des Belles Filles ski station.
The 198km trek into the Vosges range went a long way toward shaping the three-week race as experts predicted before the start — a showdown between Wiggins and defending champion Cadel Evans.
In a five-rider breakaway group on the final climb, Evans tried an attack just before the super-steep climb in the last kilometer, but Froome beat him by two seconds as Wiggins stayed close to the Australian’s back wheel.
After the finish, compatriots Wiggins and Froome hugged, with Wiggins becoming the first Briton since David Millar in 2000 to wear the yellow jersey.
Cancellara, the Swiss time-trial specialist who had worn the jersey since winning the prologue a week previously, was 1 minute, 52 seconds behind Froome — but more importantly 1:50 back of Wiggins.
The Team Sky leader, who began the day seven seconds behind Cancellara in second place overall, leads Evans by 10 seconds. Vincenzo Nibali of Italy was fourth to climb to third overall, 16 seconds behind.
“It’s a great day for the team, we won the stage and took the yellow jersey,” Wiggins said. “This is my first time in the yellow jersey. It’s incredible — it’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid.”
Wiggins has more breathing room than Cancellara had over the 199km, with only five riders within a minute of his time, including Denis Menchov of Russia, who won the 2009 Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana in 2005 and 2007.
The Swiss rider, by contrast, had 22 riders within 48 seconds of his time before Saturday’s ride.
Wiggins, a three-time Olympic track gold medalist, became the pre-race favorite after winning the Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine stage races this year.
With two time trials and more climbing days in the Alps and Pyrenees still to come, Wiggins played down speculation that he might have 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 crashes on Friday that forced at least 12 riders to quit the race.
Wiggins crashed out of last year’s Tour because of a broken collarbone and said he felt “lucky” he has been trouble-free this year.
Froome was part of the Team Sky phalanx that powered up the final climb. With most rivals falling away, the Kenyan-born Briton overcame Evans’ late surge to burst ahead to the finish.
“He was really strong. He controlled the last two to three kilometers well,” Evans said of Froome. “I thought I could anticipate it thanks to the turn and gain some speed to launch the sprint, but he had the legs and overtook me.”
The 35-year-old Australian senses he is in for a challenge from Sky.
“With Wiggins on a team like that, it’s going to be difficult,” Evans said.
Froome, who took the polka-dot jersey as the Tour’s best climber, said he was surprised Evans could not 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.
“You saw it today, Cadel never gives up,” Wiggins said.
The stage marked the first of three summit finishes on the 99th Tour de France.
Nimbler mountain specialists seized the limelight after a first week dominated by the sprinters across the flatter regions of Belgium — where the race began on June 30 — and northern France.
The final ascent, at 5.9km, 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 500m.
Seven riders broke away from the peloton after 15km and held the lead until the start of the final climb. Team Sky then pressed the peloton’s pace, before overtaking.
Giro d’Italia champion Ryder Hesjedal of Canada pulled out before the stage after being injured in a multi-rider crash on Friday.
The three-week race takes riders on another bumpy ride on stage 8, with seven climbs on the 157.5km course from Belfort to Porrentruy, Switzerland.
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