An intriguing dilemma faces Team Sky after Chris Froome moved into second place in the Tour de France behind Bradley Wiggins and appeared so strong in the finale of stage 11 that he had to wait for his leader.
On a 148-km route from Albertville to La Toussuire, which Wiggins had described as the toughest day of the route to Paris on Sunday week, the 32-year-old Londoner increased his advantage over Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) to three minutes 19 seconds.
Defending champion Evans was overtaken in second place by Froome, who now sits 2mins 5secs behind, with Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) third, 2:23 adrift.
The main talking point came around 3km from the finish when, after the Team Sky duo had bridged the gap to a rival group, Froome accelerated again.
The 27-year-old, who finished second in last year’s Vuelta a Espana, one place ahead of Wiggins, then hesitated and reached for his race radio to ask where was the Team Sky leader.
It prompted immediate questions: was the attack planned? Who called Froome back? Was Wiggins unable to go with him? Or did he pull rank, believing the manoeuvre was unnecessary?
Wiggins suggested it was the latter. “At that moment I was just really concentrating on my effort and keeping it constant,” he said.
“I’d been riding for 1.5km, 2km before that. I just wanted to clear the lactate and didn’t want to make any more of an acceleration. There was a lot of noise and a lot of things going on on the radio and a bit of confusion at that point as to what we were doing.
“I think he (Froome) showed (yesterday) he had the legs, certainly. It was another great day for the team.”
The prospect of Froome attacking in the closing stages to try to claim second place from Evans had been discussed by Team Sky ahead of the start.
But sports director Sean Yates confirmed afterwards he halted Froome’s move and that the planned acceleration was for the closing 500m.
Wiggins added: “Chris wasn’t 100 per cent confident in the last time-trial (on July 21) that he’d have the better of Cadel.
“He wanted to try to get a bit of time on Evans (yesterday). It was certainly the plan (yesterday morning), as long as I stayed with Vincenzo and those guys and Chris didn’t drag those guys away.”
Froome did forge forward again in the closing metres of the 18km final ascent to La Toussuire, finishing third on the stage, 55 seconds behind stage winner Pierre Rolland (Europcar) and two seconds ahead of Wiggins, who was sixth.
Evans rolled in 2:23 behind in 11th place, conceding 1:28 and second place to Froome ahead of today’s 226km 12th stage from Saint-Jean de Maurienne to Annonay-Davezieux.
Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford insisted on Tuesday’s rest day that clarity of roles was important and that the focus was a Team Sky rider winning the Tour, not placing two on the podium.
Froome on Tuesday was adamant his sole focus was to support Wiggins, who had to take the initiative earlier on the final climb as his colleague appeared to falter in the chase of Nibali.
Froome repeated that mantra after the stage, having halted his move when he realised Wiggins was not on his wheel.
Froome said: “I’ll follow orders at all costs. I’m part of a team and I have to do what the team asks me to do. Our plan is to look after Bradley. He’s just as strong as me, I think, and stronger than me in the time-trial.
“I’m part of a team and I’ll do what I need to do.”
Wiggins was anticipating attacks on his lead when the day began and Evans made a startlingly early and short-lived burst two thirds of the way up the 22.4km Col de la Croix de Fer, the second of the day’s two hors categorie (beyond category) climbs.
Team Sky showed their strength, with Michael Rogers dominant at the front of the peloton, and the attack was doomed.
It was perhaps an indication of his form as Evans lost touch two thirds of the way up the final climb.
Nibali twice attacked, but Froome and Wiggins shared the pursuit to close the gap.
As Rolland soloed to success, Froome then finished one place behind Thibaut Pinot (FDJ-Bigmat) in third as Wiggins finished one place behind Nibali.
Wiggins was pleased to see the back of the stage, with the unexpected bonus of taking time from Evans.
Wiggins said: “Once Cadel had got dropped and we were in that little group, the sense of relief was slightly overwhelming, that we’ve actually made it, got through the stage and we can tick that one off.”
If Wiggins was able to sigh with relief, Rolland was overcome with joy after a second stage win following his Alpe-d’Huez success in 2011.
He said: “This is the queen stage for me because it is the most difficult, because it’s in the Alps. And the Alps is my home.
“It was a great day.”