After faltering in the Alps, Cadel Evans' Tour de France defense was definitively halted in the Pyrenees on Wednesday, as he lost almost five minutes to the yellow jersey of Bradley Wiggins (Sky) on stage 16 to Bagnères-de-Luchon.
Evans' 2011 Tour victory was built on three weeks of consistency and one mammoth display on one of the giants of the race, the Col du Galibier. In 2012, the BMC leader's challenge, already fading, was finally ended on a day that saw the peloton tackle four canonical mountain passes in succession, the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde.
Although it was not apparent on the early climbs, Evans was already struggling even before the stage began, suffering from a stomach upset. "When you have only two hours before the race there's not a lot you can do," he said afterwards.
On the Col d'Aspin, however, it soon became clear that Evans would no longer pose any sort of a threat to Wiggins and Froome's duopoly at the head of the overall standings. As Ivan Basso set a steady but hardly devastating pace for his Liquigas-Cannondale stablemate Vincenzo Nibali, Evans' force deserted him.
Climbing out of the saddle, the Australian tried to exhort himself to hold the tempo, but his leaden-legged pedalling betrayed a deeper malaise. The yellow jersey group gradually edged away from him, and he trailed by 30 seconds at the summit.
As he swooped back down towards the valley before the Peyresourde, Evans managed to latch back on to the yellow jersey group, thanks in part to the pacing of his teammate Amaël Moinard, but it proved to be a temporary reprieve. Basso repeated the dose on the Peyresourde, and this time Evans was unable even to clutch at the coattails that flapped before him.
"I didn't think it [the stomach upset] would affect me before the race but obviously that's not my normal level and it's pretty much the Tour de France over for me," Evans said afterwards.
By the summit, he was already four minutes down on Wiggins, Froome and Nibali, and he came down the other side another minute in arrears, and 11:56 down on stage winner Thomas Voeckler (Europcar).
Evans now lies 7th overall, 8:06 off the yellow jersey. A podium place is almost six minutes away, but he is aware that he will be given little scope to resurrect something from his race on the road to Peyregudes on Thursday.
"I don't know if I'm far enough back to have the freedom to go in the breakaway," he said. "You have to be optimistic but also you have to be realistic. Obviously this year things haven't been coming together. The year's not over, but the retirement present I wanted to give George Hincapie this year is gone."
Van Garderen free
While Evans struggled, his young teammate Tejay van Garderen – who had already beaten him in the Besançon time trial and appeared stronger in the Alps – was finally given complete freedom to chase his own goals.
The young American finished with the best of the rest, a minute down on the yellow jersey group, and he now lies 6th overall, 7:55 off Wiggins. Van Garderen also buttressed his lead over Thibaut Pinot (FDJ-BigMat) in the young rider classification.
"It was a bad day," said manager John Lelangue. "We tried with the team to make it happen. We were at the front with two riders in the break but we saw already in the Col d'Aspin that Cadel was not in a great way, so we decided to leave Tejay up there to go for the top ten and the white jersey."
As for Evans' hopes, Lelangue insisted that there would be no miracles in the days to come. "Now it's finished," he said. "It was the last big mountain stage where he could really make it."