ARC-ET-SENANS, France (AP) — The time trial is pro cycling's "race of truth."
There are no teammates to lean on, no pack giving shelter from the wind, no way to hide weakness. It's just each rider going one-on-one against the clock in a test of strength, stamina and ability to suffer.
Time trials have assumed greater significance in this year's Tour de France because their combined length of over 62 miles means more opportunities for riders who excel in the discipline to gain ground or build leads that are difficult for rivals to overcome on flat stages when the pack mostly rides as one.
The Tour began with a short time trial known as a "prologue," a 4-mile race won handily by Fabian Cancellara, a four-time world champion in the discipline.
Monday's ninth stage, a 25.8-mile time trial between Arc-et-Senans and Besancon in France's eastern Doubs region, poses a much greater challenge than the opening prologue. Not only is it much longer, but it also comes after eight tough stages that have worn riders down with crash-filled sprint stages and punishing climbs.
Many race watchers expect the stage to be a battle between overall leader Bradley Wiggins, who excels in the discipline, and defending Tour champ Cadel Evans of Australia. Evans won last year's Tour by capturing the yellow jersey in a 26.4-mile time trial around Grenoble. Wiggins wasn't there, having crashed out earlier in the Tour.
The last time Evans and Wiggins competed in the same time trial was last month's Criterium du Dauphine. There, Wiggins destroyed Evans, finishing 1 minute, 43 seconds faster than the Australian over a 33.2-mile course. Wiggins won the stage, even besting reigning world champion Tony Martin by 34 seconds.
Evans knows he'll have to do better on Monday.
"Tomorrow is the test of truth. It's each with their own two legs," Evans said after finishing Sunday's stage. He sits 10 seconds behind Wiggins in the overall classification, a gap that Wiggins built in the opening prologue in Liege.
Tour riders will average nearly 30 mph over the course, meaning Evans, Wiggins and other podium hopefuls have just under an hour of all-out effort to gain time on their rivals.
John Lelangue, Evans' manager on team BMC Racing, said the Australian seemed "relaxed" ahead of the big test.
"Tomorrow is an important day, it's a nice time trial," Lelangue said. "It's a little bit more technical than the one in the Dauphine."
The course includes one steep hill and several hair-pin turns that will add to the race's difficulty. But with the Tour's first rest day on Tuesday, riders will have no reason to keep anything in the tank, and will race to exhaustion, collapsing after the finish from the effort.
Wiggins' Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford agreed that Monday's stage is "an important day. Margins can be big."
Wiggins reconnoitered the course and is looking forward to it, Brailsford said. "But you never know how your body will recover after a difficult and hard week," he said.
Wiggins, a silver medalist in the time trial at last year's world championships in Copenhagen, tried to downplay the race's significance.
"Every stage is important, you don't win the Tour solely on the time trial," Wiggins said. "It's just another stage, everybody will give it their all as they do every day," he said.
Wiggins called Sunday's stage "a tough day on the team," and said he was content to get through it: "Another tough day ticked off."
Thibaut Pinot gave France its first victory in this year's Tour by winning the eighth stage on Sunday after conquering seven mid-size climbs as the race entered Switzerland.
The Frenchman broke from the pack during a steep, final climb to win the 98-mile stage from Belfort to the Swiss town of Porrentruy.
Evans of Australia was second, 26 seconds behind. Tony Gallopin of France was third, and Wiggins was fourth in a small group that included most of the remaining pre-race favorites.