- Associated Press - Monday, July 9, 2012

BESANCON, France — If Monday’s time trial at the Tour de France was “the test of truth” - as one top rider called it - then Bradley Wiggins aced it.

The Olympic champion, aiming to be the first British winner of cycling’s showcase race, sped to 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 Sky teammate Christopher Froome, the runner-up.

Defending champion Cadel Evans of Australia, seen as Wiggins‘ most formidable rival, was a disappointing sixth. He called Wiggins and Froome “very, very, very strong riders.”

A day earlier, Evans was all too aware of the stakes in the time trial: “Tomorrow is the test of truth. It’s each with their own two legs,” he said.

Evans was 1:43 behind. He remains second overall, trailing Wiggins by 1:53. Froome rose 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 fourth, 2:23 behind. Russia’s Denis Menchov is fifth, 3:02 back, and Spain’s Haimar Zubeldia is sixth, 3:19 off the pace.

Wiggins has been the favorite since a dazzling stretch of three stage-race victories this season. At the Tour, he was fourth in 2009 and 24th in 2010, just behind Lance Armstrong, riding in his final Tour. He crashed out last year.

As this 99th Tour continues, 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 - an even longer, 33-mile time trial from Bonneval to Chartres before an often-celebratory ride to the Champs-Elysees finish.

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

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

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