Stage nine analysis: Wiggins turns the screw

Bradley Wiggins took his first ever stage win at the Tour de France in Besançon, and cemented his position in the yellow jersey.

Words by Lionel Birnie in Besançon

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Monday July 9, 2012

This was, by any measure, a trouncing. Bradley Wiggins won his first Tour de France stage in the time trial to Besançon and stretched his lead over Cadel Evans to almost two minutes.

Chris Froome and Fabian Cancellara were the only riders to finish the 41.5-kilometre stage within a minute of his time and the ever-dwindling list of Tour contenders now numbers four – Evans, Froome and Vincenzo Nibali. Fifth-placed Denis Menchov is three minutes back.

Wiggins might falter in the mountains but the disheartening thing for those riders who lost so much ground against the clock is that there is another, longer time trial to come at the end of the race.

However, in a way it simplifies things for the others. They do not have an array of tactical options at their disposal.

With three days in the Alps to follow Tuesday’s rest, there is no point holding back. BMC and Liquigas, in particular, must be creative, aggressive and unpredictable. If they allow Sky to set the pace and line up behind them like obedient followers until the last moment, the Tour really will be lost. They must derail the Sky train, expose some weakness and then exploit it. Either that or hope that Wiggins breaks down or melts down.

However, with Froome now third overall – he would be second, well clear of Evans but for that untimely puncture towards the end of the first road stage – Sky have a viable Plan B.

Evans lost 1-43 to Wiggins, the same time gap between the two in the time trial at the Critérium du Dauphiné last month, although that was over 53 kilometres. The Australian would have hoped to do better but it was not a terrible performance. However, it was a costly one. Wiggins covered the course at an average speed of 48.44 kilometres per hour. Evans did 46.87kph. That’s a difference of 1.5kph.

The time trial itself really only became an interesting spectacle in the final hour when the overall contenders were on the road. Before that, it had been fairly predictable. Gustav Erik Larsson of Vacansoleil was the early leader before his team-mate Lieuwe Westra went faster.

Tony Martin, who must surely qualify as the Tour’s unluckiest man, was going well until he punctured, just as he did in the prologue in Liège.

The German did enough to take the lead, despite riding with a fractured wrist, but his time was not as good as might have been expected. And it looked precarious in the face of Fabian Cancellara, who topped it convincingly.

The Swiss rider, who won the prologue and led the race until Saturday, had been tipped by many to win here. Maybe he paid for his heroic bid to save the yellow jersey at La Planche des Belles Filles on Saturday because although he wiped Martin’s time away, he had a shock when Tejay Van Garderen came in.

The BMC Racing rider had been one of the surprise disappointments at the weekend, slipping back and losing the white jersey, but he restated his talent by producing a time that was enough to take fourth place. Nine days into this race he looks every bit a future Tour de France contender and although he’s likely to have few opportunities to ride for himself in the coming days, what better education can there be than working for Evans as he seeks to chip away at Team Sky?

After that, it was all about Sky. Froome scorched through each checkpoint quicker than Cancellara. Then Wiggins steamed through quicker than Froome. The gap at the finish was 35 seconds, emphatically reminding everyone that Wiggins is the leader and Froome the helper.

All the pre-race talk was of how important the time trials would be to the overall picture but few could have predicted it would shape the race quite so decisively. Wiggins was right when he said: “It’s not over till the fat lady sings. There’s a long way to go to Paris.”

For Wiggins’s rivals and anyone who is not rooting for Team Sky, it could seem a very long way.

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