ARC-ET-SENANS, France - The time trial, pro cycling's "race of truth," pits rider against the clock in a one-on-one that requires the athletes to dig deep into their reserves of strength, stamina and suffering to win.
Time trials have assumed greater than usual significance in this year's Tour de France because their combined length of over 100 km means greater potential for riders who excel in the discipline, —such as yellow jersey holder Bradley Wiggins — to build up leads that rivals have nearly no chance of regaining on flat or mountain stages when the pack rides as one.
The Tour began with a short time trial known as a "prologue," a 6.4-kilometre race won handily by the four-time world champion in the discipline Fabian Cancellara.
Monday's ninth stage, a 41.5-kilometre time trial between Arc-et-Senans and Besancon in France's eastern Doubs region, poses a much greater difficulty, not only in its distance but also coming as it does after eight tough stages that have worn riders down with crash-filled sprint stages and punishingly steep mountain climbs.
Many race watchers expect the stage to be a battle between Wiggins and defending Tour champ Cadel Evans of Australia. Evans won last year's Tour by capturing the yellow jersey in a 42.5-kilometre time trial around Grenoble. But Wiggins wasn't there, having crashed out earlier in the Tour.
The last time Evans and Wiggins competed head-to-head in a time trial was last month's Criterium du Dauphine. There, Wiggins destroyed Evans, finishing one minute and 43 seconds faster than the Australian over a 53.5-kilometre course finishing at Bourg-en-Bresse. 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 currently sits 10 seconds behind Wiggins in the overall classification, a gap that Wiggins built in the opening prologue in Liege.
Tour riders will average around 50 km/h 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.
Evans manager on team BMC Racing John Lelangue 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 corners 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 with spittle covered lips from the effort.
Wiggins' Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford agreed that Monday's stage is "an important day. Margins can be big."
Brailsford said Wiggins checked out the course and is looking forward to the time trial. "But you never know how your body will recover after a difficult and hard week."
Wiggins, a time trial specialist who was silver medallist in the event 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."
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 away from the pack during a steep, final climb he overcame to win the 157.5-kilometre stage from Belfort to the Swiss town of Porrentruy.
Evans 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 favourites.