BESANCON, France – If Monday's time trial at the Tour de France was "the test of truth," as one top rider called it, Bradley Wiggins aced it.
The three-time Olympic gold medalist, aiming to become the first British winner of cycling's showcase race, sped to his first stage victory in the first big time trial, tightening his grip on the yellow jersey.
"That was my physical best out there," he said. "It's probably my best time trial ever."
The race against the clock is a discipline Wiggins loves. And it showed in the ninth stage, a 25.8-mile ride from Arc-et-Senans to Besancon. He finished 35 seconds ahead of runner-up Christopher Froome, his Sky teammate.
Defending champion Cadel Evans, an Australian seen as Wiggins' most formidable rival, placed a disappointing sixth, 1:43 behind. He called Wiggins and Froome "very, very, very strong riders."
Sunday, Evans was all too aware of the stakes in the time trial. "(Monday) is the test of truth. It's each with their own two legs," he said.
After Monday's stage, 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.
Evans remained second overall, trailing by 1:53. Froome rose to third from sixth and was 2:07 behind.
Wiggins has been the favorite since a dazzling stretch of three stage-race victories this season. Sky is likely to shelter Wiggins in the flats and escort him up Alps and Pyrenees climbs by pressing the pace with him in their draft, trying to wear out rivals.
Then it will be up to Wiggins to deliver solo again in the next-to-last stage – a 33-mile time trial from Bonneval to Chartres before an often-celebratory ride to the finish in Paris on July 22.
Wiggins insists the three-week race is far from over, saying a crash or illness could douse his victory hopes. But Monday's stage raised questions about whether Evans – or anyone else – can challenge Wiggins and his team, which has shown strength in the climbs and time trials that often determine the winner.
Entering the stage, Wiggins' top priority was extending his overall lead.
"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."