Brive-La-Gaillarde, France – A “beaten” Cadel Evans admitted his only salvation from this year's Tour de France could come in the race's final time trial on Saturday.
But after a tough three weeks of racing that is set to see the BMC team leader lose his crown to Britain's Bradley Wiggins, the Australian faces a challenge if he is to hoist himself higher than sixth overall.
Evans started stage 18 nearly 10 minutes behind Wiggins, 1min 27sec behind teammate Tejay Van Garderen, in fifth, and 4:04 behind Belgian Jurgen Van den Broeck in fourth.
A year after a thrilling duel with Luxembourg's Andy Schleck saw Evans crowned Australia's Tour winner, Team Sky's methodical and relentless approach to the race will force Evans back to the drawing board.
“When you do everything you can and you get beaten by a better person, hat's off to them,” Evans said at the start of the 18th stage from Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde.
“It just means you have to go back and work harder, work smarter for the following year.”
In the face of a dominant Sky team that is likely to score a remarkable 1-2 on the podium in Paris – Chris Froome sits in second place 2:05 behind Wiggins – Evans's BMC team proved powerless.
Evans, too, showed he may not have had the form of 2011.
While losing only 10sec to Wiggins in the opening day prologue over 6.4 km, his 1:43 deficit on the stage nine time trial over 41.5 km was a revelation for his BMC team manager Jim Ochowicz.
“That's where we missed something, and so did everybody else,” Ochowicz told AFP.
“The gap (to Wiggins and Froome) wasn't small... that created the separation. The separation came in that first big time trial. That put us behind.”
Evans and every other rival then failed to find a way past the steamroller that is Wiggins' Sky team in the race's mountain stages.
On stage 11 to La Toussuire in the Alps he lost a further 1:26 to drop to fourth overall at 3:19 and on stage 16 from Pau to Luchon in the Pyrenees, prior to which he suffered from stomach problems, he lost nearly five minutes.
“Being in the mountains is fine, normally it's a good thing for me, but not when you don't know how you're going to perform because of health issues,” Evans added.
“You can't plan for that. You're either going to be good or going to be terrible, in the race or out the race. It makes it a bit hard to deal with.”
Stage 17 saw Evans drop further off the pace, leaving him with only Saturday's 53.5 km time trial from Bonneval to Chartes in which to secure an overall finish more befitting of a defending champion.
While he is hopeful, the 'race of truth' – as the time trial is known – won't lie.
“I wanted to keep myself in contention for the podium but that wasn't possible,” added Evans.
“Now I'll have a little try in the time trial and see what that brings me.” – Sapa-AFP