Cadel Evans’ vision of repeating as Tour de France champion vanished under sun-baked punishment of the Pyrenees mountains on Wednesday, as Bradley Wiggins took another step toward taking the yellow jersey home.
French fan favorite Thomas Voeckler took a starring role in the entree into big climbs along the Spanish border, winning Stage 16 in a tour-de-force breakaway as Wiggins kept his big rivals a bay — or dusted them.
“It’s pretty much the Tour de France over for me,” Evans said.
The 35-year-old Australian fell from fourth to seventh overall, and trails Wiggins by 8 minutes, 6 seconds, after struggling on the past two of four climbs in the stage. He cited stomach problems.
“When you have it two hours before the race, there’s not a lot you can do,” Evans said. “I did not think it would affect me in the race, but that’s not my normal level.”
As if the four ascents were not hard enough, cycling’s big event was also trying to get over the re-emergence of another longtime challenge: doping.
Late on Tuesday, Frank Schleck of the RadioShack team was sent packing after cycling’s governing body UCI said an anti-doping lab’s test on his urine turned up a banned diuretic. The 32-year-old Luxembourg rider placed third at last year’s Tour.
Two big final shakedowns in the race await, with one stage to be held yesterday in the Pyrenees, featuring an uphill finish, followed by tomorrow’s time trial, though other pitfalls could await.
However, Wednesday’s stage went a long way toward shaping up the likeliest Tour podium when the race ends on Sunday in Paris: Wiggins, Sky teammate Christopher Froome, and Vincenzo Nibali of Italy. They all gained key breathing space by beating their 10 closest chasers by about one, two or five minutes.
“There was a pretty big selection made,” said Tejay Van Garderen, an American who at sixth eclipsed Evans as top-ranked BMC rider. “Nibali, ‘Wiggo’ and Froome were a notch above my group ... Sky is looking incredible, Nibali is making the race at least exciting.”
Voeckler dominated the 197km course from Pau to Bagneres-de-Luchon; the Frenchman leading a breakaway for his second stage victory of the Tour. He also won Stage 10 and has four in total.
“Every one of the mountain passes was a race for me,” said Voeckler, who captured the polka dot jersey for the best climber from Fredrik Kessiakoff of Sweden. “Today I did what many young riders dream of doing — leading everyone over all four summits.”
“I knew every kilometer of this course today, and it served me well,” he said.
Chris Anker Sorensen of Denmark was second, 1:40 back. Wiggins, Froome and Nibali finished together, 7:09 off Voeckler.
Overall, Wiggins leads second-placed Froome by 2:05 and third-place Nibali by 2:23. Jurgen Van Den Broeck of Belgium moved up to fourth, 5:46 back — though he lost nearly a minute to Wiggins. Evans was nearly four more minutes back.
A bunch of 38 riders broke away early, but the climbs took their toll and the group divided. Cyclists first scaled the Aubisque and Tourmalet passes — two of the toughest climbs in cycling — followed by the category-1 Aspin and Peyresourde passes. The last peak was 15.5km from the finish, before a long descent.
Voeckler grimaced, his jersey unzipped and his body rocking from side to side in rhythm with his pedal strokes as he climbed the ascents.