Bradley Wiggins knows he's well-positioned to win the Tour de France. But with the banged-up, frenetic and weary pack nearing the final rest day of the three-week race, he wasn't taking any chances Monday.
A hasty, nervous start to Stage 15 in the Pyreness foothills ultimately gave way to a stage victory by Pierrick Fedrigo. The Frenchman led a six-man breakaway as Wiggins played it safe - almost 12 minutes behind in the pack.
The 99-mile route from Samatan to Pau was a mostly flat layout that might favor a sprint finish, but teams with strong sprinters didn't lay chase.
Fedrigo bolted from the breakaway group with about four miles left, with Christian Vande Velde of the U.S. the only rider able to keep pace. The American, not a sprint expert, lost the two-man dash.
Sprinters and breakaway specialists saw this course as one of their last chances to win a stage, knowing mountains and a time trial dominate the last five race days.
"I thought the attacks at the start wouldn't last so long. It went on for almost two hours, but the terrain took its toll," Wiggins said, referring to the deceptively hilly route. "There are a lot of tired bodies out there."
From the outset, Wiggins was cautious. He noticed a "little problem" with his bike, got off and chucked it onto the roadside as his Team Sky staff quickly fetched another.
"I changed it right away because I preferred doing that than taking a risk if the race went all out after that," Wiggins said.
Overall, Wiggins leads second-place teammate Christopher Froome by 2:05. Vincenzo Nibali of Italy is third, 2:23 behind, while defending champion Cadel Evans remains fourth, 3:19 back.
"There are some gaps, but it's never finished. We are in a good position, that's for sure," pointing to Saturday's time trial, one of his specialties. He won the first one over 26 miles in Stage 9. The upcoming time trial in Stage 19 is 33 miles.
"We've already seen it. It's not easy," he said. "The last time trial at the Tour is not the same as the one in the first week."
Wiggins has not thought much about the punishing days that await in the Pyrenees on Wednesday and Thursday. The ride on Thursday features six climbs, including an uphill finish.
"I just always look one day at a time," he said. "I always think if you start looking too far ahead you forget what's in front of you."
Garmin-Sharp team manager Jonathan Vaughters, who once had Wiggins on his team, said he's been predicting a victory by the Briton for months - in part because this year's layout suits his strengths.
"Brad's biggest rival in this race is Brad, in his own head, and as long as he stays calm and focused then he's going to win it" he said. "I've always felt that this Tour was going to be a runaway for Wiggins."
Fedrigo, of the FDJ-BigMat team, won a Tour stage for the fourth time in his career and gave France its fourth stage win this year. He said the victory was especially satisfying because he had been sidelined for six months last year after suffering from Lyme disease.
Vande Velde had little hope of winning the sprint.
"I knew my chances were not good at all with Fedrigo. He is really quick guy and has got a much better sprint," said Vande Velde, who wore the Giro d'Italia leader's pink jersey for a day in 2008 and was part of the Garmin-Cervelo squad that won the Tour team trial last year.
"I've never had a sprint (victory) ever," said Vande Velde, who is 36. "I've always been a slow-twitch guy. But I'm still happy with my ride. I wish there was a hill to finish it up on, but that's the way it goes."
Wiggins finished 11 minutes, 50 seconds behind Fedrigo in the main pack. The 32-year-old Team Sky leader is looking to become Britain's first winner of cycling's showcase race.
Wiggins said he and other riders were looking forward to Tuesday's rest day.
"A lot of people are tired now, mentally more than physically," he told French TV. "It was hard today nonetheless. It was quite hot. And the road was hilly."
Tour organizers said another six riders dropped out of the race, including France's Sylvain Chavanel because of illness. Brett Lancaster of Australia withdrew because of back pain from crashes in Saturday's 13th stage, his Orica-GreenEdge team said. Forty-two riders have quit, trimming the pack to 156.
Tour organizers completed their tally from Sunday's stage when tacks were thrown on the course. Race director Jean-Francois Pescheux said the 30 top riders had a total of 61 flat tires while hundreds of cars, bikes and motorcycles in the race convoy were affected. He said police are investigating.
The final time trial in the next-to-last stage and the Pyrenees climbs are likely to determine whether anyone is able to strip Wiggins of the yellow jersey before the July 22 finish on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.