BESANCON, France — If Monday’s time trial at the Tour de France was “the test of truth” – as one top rider called it – then Bradley Wiggins aced it.
The Olympic champion, aiming to be the first British winner of cycling’s showcase race, sped to victory in the first big time trial, tightening his grip on the yellow jersey.
“That was my physical best out there,” he said. “It’s probably my best time trial ever.”
The race against the clock is a discipline Wiggins loves. And it showed in the ninth stage, a 25.8-mile ride from Arc-et-Senans to Besancon. He finished 35 seconds ahead of Sky teammate Christopher Froome, the runner-up.
Defending champion Cadel Evans, of Australia, seen as Wiggins’ most formidable rival, was a disappointing sixth. He called Wiggins and Froome “very, very, very strong riders.”
A day earlier, Evans was all too aware of the stakes in the time trial: “Tomorrow is the test of truth. It’s each with their own two legs,” he said.
Evans was 1:43 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 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 fourth, 2:23 behind. Russia’s Denis Menchov is fifth, 3:02 back, and Spain’s Haimar Zubeldia is sixth, 3:19 off the pace.
Wiggins has been the favorite since a dazzling stretch of three stage-race victories this season. At the Tour, he was fourth in 2009 and 24th in 2010, just behind Lance Armstrong, riding in his final Tour. He crashed out last year.
As this 99th Tour continues, Sky is likely to shelter Wiggins in the flats and escort him up Alps and Pyrenees climbs by pressing the pace with him in their draft, trying to wear out rivals.
Then it will be up to Wiggins to deliver solo again in the next-to-last stage – an even longer, 33-mile time trial from Bonneval to Chartres before an often-celebratory ride to the Champs-Elysees finish.
Wiggins insists the three-week race is far from over, saying a crash or illness could douse his victory hopes.
“It’s never over until the fat lady sings, and she hasn’t entered the building yet,” Wiggins said.
But the stage raises questions about whether Evans – or anyone else – can challenge Wiggins and his team, which has shown strength in both the climbs and 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 – on Thursday – and the Pyrenees next week.
For Wiggins, the task might be psychological: Holding the yellow jersey for nearly two weeks comes with mental strain for the rider and his teammates.
If Wiggins goes the rest of the way in yellow, it would mark the first time 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.
Wiggins, who has the support of Froome in his title quest, entered the stage looking to move up in the overall standings, a stage victory not his top priority.
“My goal was to get a minute on Cadel. ... I’ve come away with a bit more than that, it’s a bonus,” Wiggins said. “Winning the stage is like Christmas – it’s brilliant.”
Riders set off one by one down the starter’s ramp for the time trial. By the first time check, just more than 10 miles, Evans was more than a minute slower than Wiggins but was able to limit the damage.
On one of the warmest days so far this Tour, many riders crossed the finish with white spittle ringing their lips, a sign of dehydration. Unlike usual road stages, time trials require solo efforts, placing additional importance on form, concentration and rhythm.
Evans was “a little bit disappointed,” but insisted the Tour wasn’t over.
“I rode not my best time trial, but certainly not a bad one,” he said.
Evans acknowledges he faces a bigger hurdle than he did last year, when he overcame a 57-second deficit to Andy Schleck in the final time trial a day before the finish. The Tour “hasn’t been optimal” so far, he said, and he is “not in the best position to be in compared to last year.”
Meanwhile, confidence was rising at Sky. Team sports director Sean Yates said Wiggins “took quite a chunk off Cadel.”
“It’s not going to be easy for Cadel,” Yates added, saying the possibilities of the Australian regaining time are “relatively limited … but we all know he’ll keep fighting. He’s an ex-world champion. … There will never be a lack of respect.”
Tejay Van Garderen, a BMC teammate of Evans, surprised even himself with a fourth-place finish, 1:06 behind Wiggins. Van Garderen rose to eighth overall, from 17th, and is 5:14 behind Wiggins.
The 24-year American was nine seconds slower than third-place Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, one of the world’s top time trial riders. The Swiss star won the opening-day time trial and wore the yellow shirt for seven days until Wiggins captured it Saturday.
Cancellara fell out of the running for the yellow shirt Sunday, finishing nearly 12 minutes behind Wiggins. He’s not as strong a climber as Wiggins, Evans or Nibali.
After 10 days of racing, the pack of 178 riders gets its first rest day today. The field then faces two hard days in the Alps, including a summit finish Thursday that is likely to shake up the standings on the way to the July 22 finish in Paris.