[Bryn Lennon/Getty Images, from The Guardian]
In my Tour post two nights ago, following the first two mountain stages, I wrote about the inevitable shakeout that had taken place, with the true contenders revealed. Tour co-favorites Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans emerged in first and second place overall, separated by no more than the ten-second gap Wiggins established on day one in the short time trial. But Wiggins had the advantage of a stronger team, with several riders leading him up the climbs, Evans staying close without benefit of his own teammates.
Of special note, as I mentioned in the earlier post, is Chris Froome, who appears to be not just Wiggins’ main ally in the mountains but a contender himself. On Saturday, in the final 2 km of steep ascent to the stage finish, he led Wiggins most of the way, with Evans tucked into third. Then, when he let Wiggins take over for the final bit, Evans made his move, only for Froome to counter and win the stage himself. He would finish Sunday in sixth place overall.
Which brings us to yesterday’s 41.5 km time trial into Besançon and a stunning day for Wiggins, Froome, and Team Sky. As always, the riders start in reverse order of the standings, the leaders riding last, which means that the great time trialist Fabian Cancellara went well before they did. He set the pace with a time of 52′ 21″. The young US rider Tejay Van Garderen made a surprising run at him, finishing just 9 seconds back, by which point the big news was Chris Froome’s early times. He was running ahead of Cancellara at the checkpoints, eventually crossing the line in a stunning 51′ 59″, 22 seconds ahead. No mere climber, for sure.
Attention shifted to Evans, whose checkpoint times were behind those of Cancellara, Van Garderen, and Froome. Wiggins left the starting ramp last, 3 minutes after Evans, and his checkpoint times were similar to those of Froome and Cancellara. He appeared to be putting some significant time between himself and Evans. The big question was, would Froome jump from sixth overall all the way to second, ahead of Evans, or would Evans keep second position?
Evans crossed in 53′ 07″, over a minute behind Froome, but close enough to stay 14 seconds ahead overall. Only Wiggins remained on the course, but not for long, finishing in 51′ 24″. Final result: Wiggins won the stage, Froome second, Cancellara third, Van Garderen fourth, Chavanel fifth, Evans sixth. Not all that bad for Evans, really, compared to most of the field. Maybe not his best day, but he is a fine time trialist. The problem is, Wiggins is a brilliant one, and Froome has demonstrated that he’s not far off.
And with that, the riders entered today’s rest day with the nature of the competition much clarified. Wiggins has a potentially insurmountable lead of 1′ 53″ over Evans, 2′ 07″ over Froome, 2′ 23″ over Nibali, and 3 or more minutes over everyone else. If he doesn’t crack in the Alps or Pyrenees, he will win, all the more because he can be expected to add to his lead in the last competitive stage, the time trial a week from Saturday. Evans’ only hope is to attack hard on the mountain stages and hope to break away from him at least once, which will be hard to do without a strong team. The Sky riders are more likely to be formidable attackers, trying to lose Evans and lock up the top two places for Wiggins and Froome.
I just headed over to The Guardian and came up with the photo up top. I also found an article from their famed sportswriter Richard Williams . I may have been insufficiently emphatic about Wiggins’ strong position. Here are excerpts from Williams piece:
After Team Sky’s impressive show of strength on Sunday and Monday, when he and his wingman Chris Froome pulverised the opposition in the mountain stage to Porrentruy and on the time trial to Besançon, Wiggins now enjoys a lead of 1min 53sec over Cadel Evans, the defending champion, with Froome in third place, 14 seconds further back, and Vincenzo Nibali of Italy in fourth, 2min 23sec behind the yellow jersey.
No one else is within three minutes, and some observers have been declaring the race as good as over. According to the correspondent of Libération, the French daily, anyone who kills the Tour stone dead before it even reaches the Alps should henceforth be said to have “done a Wiggins”.
The man himself demurs. “It’s a dream situation to be in,” he said at Tuesday’s press conference, “but I don’t expect anyone at this stage of the race to say: ‘Yes, Sky have won it, let’s just ride to Paris and have a big party.’ We expect this to be a shit-fight for the next couple of weeks. That’s how we’ve prepared for it and that’s what cycling’s about.”
But he knows that Evans, who became the first Australian winner last year, gives away nothing without a struggle. “I don’t for one minute underestimate Cadel and what he’s capable of doing. I’ve got huge respect for him and I expect him to fight every inch of the way to Paris.
A shit-fight for sure. I’m looking forward to it.