Britain’s David Millar claimed his fourth Tour de France stage, and his first since 2003, after dominating a two-up sprint with Frenchman Jean-Christophe Peraud on Friday.
Yellow-jersey holder Bradley Wiggins finished nearly eight minutes behind a leading group of five to retain his race lead after the 226km 12th stage between Saint-Jean-De-Maurienne and Annonay in the Ardeche.
Wiggins’ Sky teammate Chris Froome stayed second overall at 2 minutes, 5 seconds, with Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) in third at 2:23 and Australia’s Cadel Evans (BMC) fourth at 3:19.
On what was termed a “transition” stage before the peloton heads into the Pyrenees, Wiggins had little to worry him as the breakaway stretched their lead at the front.
The biggest drama was his decision to make a small attack before the summit of the final climb, but he explained it had been purely to prevent Frenchman Jerome Coppel slipping away.
“It was just a way of neutralizing the Jerome Coppel/Christophe Kern attack, because Coppel was at 12 minutes [behind] and we didn’t want him joining the front group and gaining a lot of time,” Wiggins said.
Millar’s fourth career stage on the race comes in the wake of an “horrific” Tour campaign for his Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda team who have lost several riders, including team leader Ryder Hesjedal.
“It’s massive. It’s been an horrific Tour for us so far,” Millar said. “I really wanted to do something … prove that we’re still here and show that Garmin-Sharp are one of the best cycling teams in the world.”
A day after the toughest stage in the Alps and with the only two major climbs coming within the first 80km, the breakaway contenders were primed from the start of the race’s longest stage.
After 20km of attacks and counter attacks, a 19-strong group pulled free of the peloton on the 12.5km climb to the summit of the Cucheron and after a tactical battlefield, the five finishers finally broke free of their companions after the descent of the day’s second climb and with about 120km to race.
They went on to build a significant lead on the peloton being controlled by Wiggins’ Sky team, taking their advantage to nearly 13 minutes.
Although there was little at stake for the yellow-jersey challengers on this stage, Millar denied the peloton had sat up to let them race away.
“They didn’t let us go, we really had to fight hard to build that advantage,” the Scot added.
After collaborating all day, Spaniard Egoi Martinez of the crash-hit Euskaltel team began the hostilities with a brief attack 4km from the finish.
However, it was Peraud’s acceleration 2.7km from the slightly uphill finish that proved decisive.
Millar fought hard to get back on the wheel and his efforts allowed the pair to open up a decisive gap on Martinez, Frenchman Cyril Gautier and Croatian Robert Kiserlovski.
At the end, Millar collapsed on the ground to soak up a victory that comes 45 years, to the day, after the death of former British cycling giant Tom Simpson.
Meanwhile, leader Bradley Wiggins said he had suffered a slight burn to his arm after being hit with a flare near the end of the stage on Friday.
Wiggins quipped that the flare-throwers, who had been running alongside the peloton as they raced to the finish, might have come off worse than he did after they were targeted in retaliation by water bottles thrown by the other riders.