If Monday’s time trial at the Tour de France was “the test of truth” — as Bradley Wiggins’ main rival Cadel Evans had said it was — then the Englishman passed it with flying colors.
The 31-year-old Olympic champion, aiming to be the first British winner of cycling’s showcase race, sped to victory in the first big time trial on the ninth stage, consolidating his grip on the race leader’s yellow jersey.
“That was my physical best out there,” he said of the race against the clock — a discipline he loves — in the 41.5km jaunt from Arc-et-Senans to Besancon, France. “It’s probably my best time trial ever.”
Defending champion Evans of Australia, seen as Wiggins’ greatest threat, placed a disappointing sixth.
He called Wiggins and Sky teammate Christopher Froome, who was second, “very, very, very strong riders.”
A day earlier, Evans was all too aware of the important stakes in the time trial.
“Tomorrow is the test of truth. It’s each with their own two legs,” he said.
Wiggins put to work skills that he developed while training to become an Olympic pursuit gold medalist, pedaling with rhythmic and aerodynamic discipline to win, 35 seconds faster than Froome.
Evans was 1 minute, 43 seconds behind. He remains second overall, trailing Wiggins by 1:53. Froome rose to third, from sixth, and is 2:07 behind his teammate.
“I was really motivated — the time trial is my thing,” Wiggins said, adding that he had worked hard on his riding position, breathing and study of the course. “I am very happy now.”
Overall, Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali is in fourth, 2:23 behind, Denis Menchov of Russia is fifth, 3:02 back, and Spain’s Haimar Zubeldia sits sixth, 3:19 off the leader’s pace.
Wiggins has been the odds-on favorite to win after showing dazzling form with three stage-race victories this season. At the Tour, he was fourth in 2009, placed a disappointing 24th in 2010 — just behind Lance Armstrong, riding on his final Tour — and he crashed out last year.
As the 99th Tour continues, Team Sky are likely to shelter Wiggins in the flats, and escort him up Alps and Pyrenees by pressing the pace with him in their draft — trying to wear out his rivals.
Then, it will be up to Wiggins to pull out his solo finesse again in the penultimate stage — an even longer 53km time trial from Bonneval to Chartres, France, before an often-celebratory ride to the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
Wiggins insisted the three-week race is far from over, saying a crash or illness could douse his victory hopes. He also noted that Evans has vowed to fight to the finish.
“It’s never over until the fat lady sings, and she hasn’t entered the building yet,” he said.
However, the stage raises questions about whether Evans — or anyone else — can challenge Wiggins and his teammates, who have shown strength on both the climbs and in the time trials that often determine the Tour winner.
For the Australian, it will mean trying to attack on the climbs. Two uphill finishes remain, one each in the Alps — tomorrow — and in the Pyrenees next week.
For Wiggins, after his physical dominance so far, the task might be psychological — holding on to the yellow jersey for nearly two weeks comes with potentially heavy mental strain on both its bearer and his teammates.
If Wiggins goes the rest of the way in yellow, it would mark the first time that only two riders had worn the leader’s jersey in a Tour since Armstrong took it from Estonia’s Jaan Kirsipuu en route to winning the first of his seven titles in 1999.