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Bradley Wiggins finally had a reason to crack a smile, albeit dirt-caked, after a superb ride on the race’s third stage revived his bid on Tuesday.
The Team Sky rider went into the 213km stage from Wanze in Belgium to Arenberg in northern France in 57th and more than 30 seconds behind some of his main rivals after a disastrous performance in the prologue.
But on a day when 13km of cobblestones — and some dominant riding by Saxo Bank’s Andy Schleck and Fabian Cancellara — played a huge role in deciding matters the Londoner got his campaign right back on track.
Wiggins was able to avoid major disaster, staying with reigning champion and Tour favorite Alberto Contador (Astana) as they raced over the final four and most difficult cobblestone sectors.
Although fellow challengers Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans (BMC Racing Team) finished 53 seconds ahead of him, Wiggins was able to finish more than a minute ahead of seven-time champion Lance Armstrong (Team RadioShack), the big loser among the favorites for the overall as the cobbles took their toll.
“It was carnage, but we’ve known for seven months it was going to be carnage,” said Wiggins, who is now in 14th place at just 1:49 behind Cancellara and 1:10 behind Evans.
“Fortunately we ended up on the right side of it and we’re back in business.”
Wiggins was among the dozens of riders who crashed on the second stage, and he knew Tuesday could have hampered his bid further.
“I responded well from the crash yesterday,” he said. “I knew this morning that it was going to be those who went out there with a fighting mentality would come out the other side well today.
“Fortunately it worked out.”
It proved to be a huge day for Team Sky, with Welshman Geraint Thomas showing his all-round talents by staying up front all day and only missing out on the stage win to Norwegian cobbles specialist Thor Hushovd (Cervélo TestTeam).
In the process, Thomas took possession of a white jersey for the best young rider.
Thomas is now second overall at 23 seconds behind Cancellara, who is not a long-time favorite for the yellow jersey, with two-time runner-up Evans in third at 39.
Schleck is at 1:09 and Contador at 1:40 with Armstrong dropping to 18th at 2:30.
Former track champion Thomas seemed happier with showing his British national champion’s jersey throughout the ride over the cobbles than he did with his second-place finish.
“It was a massive buzz going across the cobbles in the front group with Cancellara and Thor and Cadel — you don’t get any better group than that,” said Thomas, who played down his own yellow-jersey ambitions.
“I’m here for Brad, but it’s a nice bonus. It was a good day.”
For British sprint king Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) it was another disastrous day.
Two days after crashing on the first stage, thus losing out on the chance for a sprint win and with it the points towards his aim of the green jersey, the Isle of Man rider finished more than two minutes down on stage winner Hushovd.
Hushovd pulled on the sprinters’ green jersey for the first time and now leads the competition with 63 points. Cavendish, who won six stages at last year’s race and just missed out on the green jersey to Hushovd, is last in the competition with one point.