Former champion Cadel Evans’ Tour de France hopes remain alive, but on the day race leader Chris Froome took more time off his rivals, the Australian admitted he simply did not have the legs.
As Froome finished only 12 seconds behind Germany’s Tony Martin, the winner of the stage with a time of 36 minutes 29 seconds, Evans crossed the finish 2:18 in arrears to the yellow jersey holder.
Having lost 26 seconds to Froome on the team time trial, then more than four minutes to the Kenyan-born Briton on the dramatic eighth stage to Ax-Trois-Domaines, Australia’s 2011 champion is now 14th overall at a massive 6:54 off the pace.
Froome’s closest rival Alejandro Valverde of Spain is now 3:25 adrift in second place with one time trial and four tough mountain stages to go.
Evans, who finished third overall on the Giro d’Italia barely six weeks ago, now looks out of the running for a place on the podium of the 100th Tour de France.
The 36-year-old remains defiant, but he admitted he did not have the legs to threaten the big specialists like Martin and Froome.
“Looking toward Paris and the end of the race, it would have been ideal to take back more time on some of the rivals ahead of me, but I didn’t have it in the legs today to do better,” Evans said.
As Evans underwhelmed, trailing such riders as Frenchman Jeremy Roy and green jersey holder Peter Sagan of Slovakia, Australian Richie Porte produced a solid performance that was good enough for fourth place at 1:21 behind Germany’s two-time world champion.
Porte had sat in second place overall following Froome’s winning attack on the way to Ax-Trois-Domaines in the Pyrenees on Saturday’s eighth stage, only to collapse spectacularly the following day.
The Tasmanian started Wednesday’s 33km race against the clock in 34th place at 20:10 behind Froome.
Although he is now far behind in 31st at 21:19, his performance in the “race of truth” reassured Froome that Porte, and fellow climbing specialist Pete Kennaugh, will be ready to provide crucial pace-setting support when required.
“Unfortunately Richie has slipped back from second place in GC [general classification], but I think he’s shown today he’s not out of this race,” Froome said. “I expect him to be there in the mountains with Pete Kennaugh as we move into the Alps.”
Froome missed what would have been his third stage win in the race, but there were other rewards for the Briton.
“I’m very happy with the time I set. The objective today was to try and take the maximum time possible from my rivals,” said Froome, who won Olympic time trial bronze in London last year.
Asked if he could beat Froome, Valverde, who won the 2009 Tour of Spain, but has never finished on the podium of the Tour de France, just shook his head and said: “Difficult ... difficult.”
Two-time champion Alberto Contador, a climbing specialist like Froome, but who was less suited to the flat, mostly linear race course, said he has not given up hope despite sitting fourth at 3:54.
“No one’s lost this race yet and no one has won it. There’s a lot of racing to be done,” the Spaniard said.
The onus will now be on Froome’s rivals to attack in the Alps.
Asked how he expected his rivals to race on the weekend, Froome said: “Like we saw last weekend, other teams are going to throw everything they’ve got at us. We’re just going to try and have to deal with that the best we can with the team that we’ve got.”
Evans’ BMC team have yet to make their mark on this race with Jim Ochowicz admitting: “We think that the race is far from over. Certainly for us, it’s a lot more difficult to think about winning in Paris.”
Evans said: “From here, I hope to improve myself for the next set of mountains and the next time trial and keep moving ahead on the GC.”
The only ugliness on this otherwise spectacular stage was that a roadside spectator apparently sprayed urine at British rider Mark Cavendish as he was riding the course, said Patrick Lefevere, manager of his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team.
Froome noted that one of the attractions of cycling is that spectators get close to the athletes. The Cavendish incident “ruins the whole atmosphere.”