Cadel Evans's Tour de France defence suffered its first major setback in the exacting stage 9 time trial between Arc-et-Senans and Besançon, and the BMC leader enters the first rest day of the Tour pondering how to make up the 1:53 that now separates him from the yellow jersey of Bradley Wiggins (Sky).
On a disappointing day for the Australian, the early appearances were deceptively bright. Evans was noticeably smooth in the opening kilometres, and with many early finishers describing a rather more technical course than previously expected, it seemed as though he would limit his losses to Wiggins.
In a race of truth around France's watch-making heartland, however, time is always the ultimate arbiter, and its judgement of Evans's efforts was a harsh one. At the first checkpoint after 16.5km, Evans was already over a minute down on Wiggins, and while he steadied the ship to lose only a further 19 seconds over the following 15km, he eventually reached Besançon in 6th place, 1:43 down on the Englishman.
"To be honest I didn't know what to expect," Evans said after completing his post-race warm-down. "It was the first long time trial and I didn't know what the level of the others in time trialling here would be. We see where we are now and it was what it was."
In spite of his losses in the overall classification, Evans looked to take solace from the fact that he had fared admirably against the pure time triallists, but it won't have escaped his attention that the Sky pair of Wiggins and Chris Froome – first and second on the stage – were on another sphere to the rest of the field.
"I didn't ride my best time trial but certainly not a bad one, and in comparison to the time triallists like Martin, Cancellara and so on, it seems I wasn't too far off the mark," he said. "But Sky had two very, very strong riders today."
When Evans won the Tour twelve months ago, his primary opponents were the Schleck brothers and a labouring Alberto Contador, and he rode secure in the knowledge that he could seize yellow in the final time trial in Grenoble. This time around, circumstances will require more adventurous tactics, even if his mental approach remains the same.
"It's the same as always – fight to the end and don't give up. That continues," Evans said. "It hasn't been optimal so far this Tour. I'm 1:53 down, which isn't the best position to be in, being 10 seconds down was a lot more realistic but we'll reassess the situation day by day and. But we don't give up, that's for sure."
Evans is well aware that the goalposts can shift can dramatically from day to day in the Tour de France, and in spite of Sky's dominance at La Planche des Belles Filles and Besançon, he had detected some flaws in their formidable armoury on the stage 8.
"I was surprised how Sky fell apart on the last climb yesterday but then also surprised that they have first and second in the time trial today, that was really exceptional," he said. "There's a lot more racing to go before Paris."
Evans now lies second overall, almost two minutes down on Wiggins, but BMC manager John Lelangue sounded a defiant note as he waited for his rider outside the team camper van. "Two minutes, two weeks, so we have time," he said. "If it was already over, I would be already going home tonight."
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