Wiggins cements hold on yellow jersey

Bradley Wiggins showed he’s the man to beat at the Tour de France, winning the first big time trial and cementing his hold on the yellow jersey he wants to take home in two weeks.

BESANCON, France — Bradley Wiggins showed he’s the man to beat at the Tour de France, winning the first big time trial and cementing his hold on the yellow jersey he wants to take home in two weeks.

The three-time Olympic track champion is trying to become the first British champion of cycling’s premier event. He dominated Monday’s race against the clock – a discipline he loves – in the 41.5-kilometre ninth stage between Arc-et-Senans and Besancon.

“That was my physical best out there,” Wiggins said on French TV after his first stage victory in the Tour. “It’s probably my best time trial ever.”

Christopher Froome, his Sky teammate and countryman who won Saturday’s seventh stage, was second – 35 seconds behind. Their 1-2 punch was especially hard on Australian Cadel Evans, the defending champion, who finished 1:43 behind Wiggins in sixth.

Evans remains second overall, trailing Wiggins by 1:53. Froome jumped to third, from sixth, and is 2:07 behind his teammate.

“I was really motivated – the time trial is my thing,” Wiggins said, adding he had worked hard on his riding position, breathing and study of the course. “I am very happy now.”

Overall, Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali is in fourth, 2:23 behind, Denis Menchov of Russia is fifth, 3:02 back, and Spain’s Haimar Zubeldia sits sixth, 3:19 off the leader’s pace.

Wiggins insisted the three-week race is far from over, saying a crash or illness could douse his victory hopes. He also noted that Evans has vowed to fight to the finish.

“It’s never over until the fat lady sings, and she hasn’t entered the building yet,” he said.

But the stage raises questions about whether Evans – or anyone else – can challenge Wiggins and his team, which has shown strength in both the climbs and time trials that often determine the Tour winner.

Wiggins, who has the vocal support of Froome in his title quest, entered the stage looking to move up in the overall standings — and a stage victory was not his top priority.

“My goal was to get a minute on Cadel. … I’ve come away with a bit more than that, it’s a bonus,” Wiggins said. “Winning the stage is like Christmas – it’s brilliant.”

Riders set off one by one down the starter’s ramp for the time trial. By the first time check, at 16.5 kilometres, Evans was more than a minute slower than Wiggins, but was able to limit the damage.

On one of the warmest days so far this Tour, many riders crossed the finish with white spittle ringing their lips, a sign of dehydration. Unlike usual road stages, time trials require solo efforts, placing additional importance on form, concentration and rhythm.

Evans was “a little bit disappointed” but insisted the Tour wasn’t over.

“I rode not my best time trial, but certainly not a bad one,” he said, adding Sky had “two very, very, very strong riders today.”

Evans said he’ll “fight to the end” but acknowledged he faces a bigger hurdle than last year, when he overcame a 57-second deficit to Andy Schleck in the final time trial a day before the finish in Paris.

The Tour “hasn’t been optimal” so far, and he was “not in the best position to be in compared to last year,” Evans said.

Meanwhile, confidence was rising at Sky. Team sports director Sean Yates said Wiggins “took quite a chunk off Cadel … honestly I was a bit surprised to see how much time he took off Cadel.”

“It’s not gonna be easy for Cadel,” Yates added, saying the possibilities of the Australian regaining time “are relatively limited … but we all know he’ll keep fighting. He’s an ex-world champion.”

“There will never be a lack of respect.”

Tejay Van Garderen, Evans’ BMC teammate, surprised even himself with a fourth-place finish, 1:06 behind Wiggins. The 24-year American was nine seconds slower than third-place Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, one of the world’s top time-trialists. The Swiss rider won the opening-day time trial and wore the yellow jersey for seven days, until Wiggins captured it Saturday.

Cancellara plunged out of competition for the coveted shirt in Sunday’s ride along seven climbs — finishing nearly 12 minutes behind Wiggins. He’s not as strong a climber as the Briton, Evans, or Nibali.

Van Garderen rose to eighth overall, from 17th, and is 5:14 behind Wiggins.

After 10 straight days of racing, the 178-rider pack gets its first rest day Tuesday. The field then faces two hard days in the Alps, including a summit finish Thursday that is likely to shake up the standings.

If Wiggins goes the rest of the way in yellow, it would mark the first time that only two riders had worn the leader’s jersey in a Tour since Lance Armstrong took it off Estonia’s Jaan Kirsipuu en route to winning the first of his seven titles in 1999.

The Tour ends July 22 in Paris.

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