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PORRENTRUY, Switzerland (VN) — After months of hype and speculation that this is a “time trial” Tour de France, the first major race of truth is at hand.
Only 10 seconds separate Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans at the top of a reduced, yet still tightly wound GC, and the tone of the remainder of the Tour hangs in the balance.
Wiggins and Evans looked evenly matched on the climbs, so Monday’s time trial puts the yellow jersey — and perhaps the final victory — up for grabs.
Wiggins, however, refuses to let the growing expectations of becoming the first British rider to win the Tour get to him. After defending yellow in Sunday’s frenetic eighth stage, he tried to shrug off the importance of the race against the clock.
“There’s been so much made about the time trials. They’re irrelevant if you haven’t gotten through the past week,” Wiggins said. “Winning the Tour is about being good every day. You do not win the Tour solely on the time trials.”
While that might be Wiggins’ public stance, behind the scenes, Team Sky knows that the rolling, 41.5km route from Acr-et-Senas to Besancon across the foothills of the Jura Mountains could tip the Tour in their favor.
In all of Wiggins’ major wins this season — at Paris-Nice, Romandie and the Dauphiné — he has made the decisive differences in the time trials.
During the Dauphiné, Wiggins took a morale-boosting 1:43 out of Evans in 53km, on a flatter course than the one the riders will face on Monday. That hillier, more technical TT will tip the advantage toward Evans.
Still, Team Sky is hoping that Wiggins can take significant time on Evans and his other rivals, which would put them firmly in the driver’s seat going into the second half of the race.
Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford is satisfied with how the team has ridden so far — so much so the team celebrated its first yellow jersey with champagne last night.
But in a bid to lower expectations just as the pressure is building on the British team, he, too, insists the Tour will not be won or lost on Monday’s stage.
“The time trial is a big day in this Tour, but every day is important,” Brailsford said. “I think all the time trials are important during this Tour. We will see how significant tomorrow’s will be.”
This weekend, Team Sky has controlled the pace, riding with the numbers in Saturday’s explosive finale as well as placing Chris Froome with Wiggins in Sunday’s also surprising stage, which saw the peloton fracture yet again.
Over at BMC Racing, defending champ Evans realizes he needs to knock it out of the park on Monday to change the dynamic of the Tour.
Evans made it through the first week relatively unscathed, thanks to his BMC bodyguards, but found himself isolated on both Saturday and Sunday, without a lieutenant on the final decisive climbs.
The Australian, who took a dig late in Sunday’s stage with Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), says everything can change Monday.
“Tomorrow is the test of truth … each with their own legs. I think there is a possibility that everything is turned upside down,” Evans said. “Tomorrow might turn everything around. We’ll see after tomorrow.”
Despite some pundits who seem ready to say the “Tour is over,” BMC Racing president Jim Ochowicz reminded everyone that the Tour is “just starting” and that the course has yet to “get to a real big climb.”
“I think (Cadel) is better than last year,” Ochowicz said. “We are in the perfect place. Not just for tomorrow, but for the next time trial, too. It gives us a perfect picture for the next round, too.”
Limiting the damage
Of course, there are other players in the GC picture beyond the ever-tightening tug-of-war between Wiggins and Evans. Three other riders are within one minute of the race leader.
Third-place Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale), just 16 seconds off Wiggins, realizes he will be at a disadvantage against the clock.
Though Nibali is no slouch in time trials, the Italian will be fighting to stay within reach of the lead. He predicts if he can keep his losses to within three seconds per kilometer, he will still have a chance to fight for the yellow jersey in the mountains.
“For me, it’s all about limiting my losses. If I can keep my losses to 1 minute, 30 seconds, I will be satisfied. Anything more than two minutes will make it difficult for me to think about the victory,” Nibali said after the stage.
“Perhaps it’s better the time trial comes after two hard stages of climbing. Perhaps the specialists will be more tired. I hope so.”
Denis Menchov, fourth at 54 seconds back, is perhaps the strongest time trialist among the GC contenders behind Wiggins and Evans.
The Russian, already a winner of the Vuelta a España and the Giro d’Italia, has kept alive his ambitions by being able to follow the Team Sky push on Saturday and staying with the favorites Sunday.
“For Denis, the time trial is the key to victory. On a good day, he can take time on just about everyone. We have worked to protect him, now we will see how good he is,” said Katusha director Valerio Piva.
“The first time trial is very important. Everyone is closer to full strength than in the final time trial. There can be bigger differences. We hope Denis has a good day. If he does, we can aspire for more in this Tour.”
Then there’s still the battle for the stage victory. Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin will be facing off ahead of what’s expected to be a showdown for the Olympic Games in three weeks.
Martin, however, is still nursing injuries from falls earlier in the Tour.
“I do not know if I can ride 100 percent,” Martin said at the finish line Sunday. “I will try, but my arm is hurting.”
Omega Lotto-Quick Step sport director Wilfried Peters said the time trial is also an opportunity for Levi Leipheimer, 21st at 4:46, to try to revive his GC chances.
“The GC is almost finished for Levi. Maybe he can have a great time trial and move back up to fight for the top 10,” Peters told VeloNews.
“For Tony, we will see. Right now he’s racing like this (Peters twists his body to his left). We will see if he can hold the position. His arm is hurting.”
And finally there is Chris Froome, who climbed to sixth overall at 1:32 back. Froome lost 1:25 in a stage 1 puncture, a setback that could have major implications both within Team Sky and during the final battle for the yellow jersey.
The Kenya-born all-rounder remains the Tour’s enigma, something that could dramatically change by Monday afternoon.
Team Sky has been playing down suggestions that the Tour is in for a repeat of last year’s Vuelta a España, where Froome ended up being stronger than Wiggins and the team was forced to change its tactic mid-race.
Wiggins said last year’s Vuelta time trial — in which Wiggins finished third and Froome took second to take the leader’s jersey — is very different than what the riders will face on Monday.
“It’s always possible” that Froome could beat him in the time trial, Wiggins said.
“It’s the race of truth,” he continued. “You’ve got to have the legs. That time trial last year was at 1,000 meters of altitude, 37C, and I went out way too fast. Of course, anything’s possible. I try not to think too negatively about it and concentrate on my own ride.”
Wiggins, starting last, will have time references not only to Evans, but to Froome as well.
Brailsford refused to speculate what might happen if Froome put down a better ride than Wiggins.
Sports director Sean Yates said Wiggins, Froome and three-time world time trial champion Mick Rogers will ride “full gas,” while the rest of the team will ride easy to save their legs for the coming battle.
“Our goal from the outset has been to take the yellow jersey back to the UK from Paris. We are not interested in having as many guys in the top 10,” Yates said.
“It’s important that we win the race. Froomey is our backup GC rider. That he lost that time on the first stage is bloody bad luck.”
As Wiggins said, every stage in the Tour is important — but there hasn’t been a time trial stage with so much riding on the final ticks of the clock in a long time.