LUCHON, France (AFP) — Cadel Evans admitted his hopes of defending his 2011 Tour de France crown were now over following a crippling performance on the race’s 16th stage on Wednesday.
Evans (BMC Racing), Australia’s first Tour champion, began the penultimate mountain stage in fourth overall, 3:19 behind Bradley Wiggins (Sky).
At the end of the 197km stage from Pau to Bagnères-de-Luchon, which took in four major climbs, the BMC team leader added nearly eight minutes to his deficit.
He is now seventh overall at 8:06 behind Wiggins.
Evans, usually one of the strongest riders in the peloton on the tough climbs of the Tour, began trailing by the third climb of the day.
“I had a few stomach issues before the race and when you have that two hours before there’s not a lot you can do,” said Evans. “I didn’t think it would affect me in the race but obviously that’s not my normal level and it’s pretty much the Tour de France over for me.”
Evans, and indeed other contenders, have struggled to counter the impressive pace-setting of Wiggins’ Sky teammates on the race’s tough climbs. The 35-year-old showed the first signs of weakness Wednesday on the 12.4km climb to the summit of the Col d’Aspin.
As the yellow jersey group trailed leaders Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and Brice Feillu (Saur-Sojasun), a turn of pace at the front by third-overall Vincenzo Nibali’s Liquigas-Cannondale team dropped Evans and several other riders three kilometers from the summit.
Team manager John Lelangue said he knew Evans was in trouble.
“We had put two riders into the breakaway, (Steve) Cummings and (George) Hincapie because they’re good support riders,” said Lelangue.
The idea was for the pair, who had managed to get into an early breakaway of 38 riders, to help Evans once the yellow jersey group came fighting back later in the stage.
Lelangue added: “But we saw that he (Evans) was in difficulty as of the Aspin, and that’s when we knew something wasn’t right.”
He came over the summit with a 45-second deficit to Wiggins and the two other men that began the day ahead of him in the general classification — Nibali and Sky rider Chris Froome.
It was a huge setback, but Evans dug deep on the descent and, thanks to three of his BMC teammates, the Australian managed to close the gap to Wiggins’ group by the start of the final, 9.5km climb to the summit of the Peyresourde.
Early on the climb, however, Evans showed again he did not have the pace to follow when Jelle Vanendert, working for Lotto-Belisol team leader Jurgen Van den Broeck, took over the pace-setting.
The Australian was left trailing once and for all and ended up rallying the finish with teammate George Hincapie and several others at 11:53 behind stage winner Voeckler and nearly five minutes behind Wiggins, Nibali and Froome.
A year after preparing for triumph, Evans is now one place behind American teammate Van Garderen, whom Lelangue wasn’t prepared to sacrifice.
“We gave Tejay the green light to stay up at the front with the leaders because he had good legs, he was in the white jersey and he’s still in the top 10 so it was normal to let him race his race,” said Lelangue.
“I think the whole team did a good job collectively to try and limit the losses. But there’s no doubt, we lost big time today.”