A successful defense of his historic yellow jersey now looks unlikely for Cadel Evans, but his BMC team are refusing to throw in the towel. On the second day in the Alps, and arguably the hardest stage of this year's race, Australia's 2011 champion lost 1:26 to British rival Bradley Wiggins to see his overnight deficit of 1:53 grow to 3:19.
Now fourth overall, and with Italian Vincenzo Nibali (2:23) Wiggins' closest rival, Evans faces a formidable challenge on a race with few remaining mountain stages and only one more mountaintop finish, on stage 17. After reaching the BMC team bus Evans did not speak to waiting reporters, leaving team manager John Lelangue to explain the Australian's feelings.
"Disappointed, of course... when you're here to defend the title like this," said Lelangue, who oversaw Evans' triumph in 2011.
In the face of the continued domination of Team Sky, including punishing turns of pace on the climbs by Australians Mick Rogers and Richie Porte, BMC had to come up with a plan. But after sending German Marcus Burghardt into an early breakaway that would eventually provide the stage winner in Frenchman Pierre Rolland, then sending American Tejay Van Garderen as a decoy on the Col du Glandon, their efforts were quickly stymied.
A brief Evans attack that allowed him to catch Van Garderen and distance Wiggins soon petered out. Ominously for Evans, it appeared that even Van Garderen had better legs than his leader.
"He wasn't on his best day... normally he would be ripping the legs off of me," said the American.
Minutes later Sky had reeled the pair back in with a tempo which steadily left riders falling off the back, leaving Wiggins to later admit his surprise at BMC's tactics.
"To attack and sustain a high tempo and stay away with two climbs still to go, I was surprised. It's not something I would have had the balls to do," said the Englishman.
Lelangue later claimed it had not been a mistake: "It was the plan, certainly not a mistake."
Whether he was suffering an off-day or not, Evans was made to pay for his earlier efforts when an acceleration by Wiggins's teammate Chris Froome left him trailing with around 6 km to race on the 18 km climb to the finish. Lelangue admitted Sky's tempo had done the damage.
"He was on the limit and it was a pretty high tempo by Sky on the Toussuire," he said.
Now facing virtual defeat, Lelangue admitted Evans' battle just got more complicated just over a week before another long time trial that is suited more to Wiggins.
"More than three minutes, it's complicated when you know there's the time trial at the end and there's not so many big mountaintop finishes remaining, and looking also at the team that Sky has here," added the Belgian.
"But it's always possible, and we'll keep fighting for this every day until we get to Paris." He indicated that Evans, and BMC, could be prepared to risk everything to relaunch an unlikely victory bid. "We need to keep fighting. Maybe we'll gain some minutes and maybe we'll lose some minutes, but we'll take every possible opportunity, day by day."