Cadel Evans's dream of claiming back-to-back victories in the Tour de France were left in tatters on Wednesday when the Australian lost almost 12 minutes after being struck with a stomach illness in the hours before a brutally tough 16th stage in the Pyrenees.
The stage was won by Frenchman Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) who finished 1 minute 40 seconds ahead of Denmark's Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) and 3mins 22secs clear of Gorka Izagirre (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana).
Meanwhile, Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale), British Tour leader Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and fellow Briton Chris Froome (Sky) finished as a threesome and in that order - in 11th, 12th and 13th positions - at 7mins 9secs. And Evans, exhausted from a day that saw him dropped twice, was 35th at 11mins 56secs and in a group of eight riders that included BMC teammates, American George Hincapie and Frenchman Amael Moinard.
Heading into Thursday's 143.5 kilometre 17th stage from Bagneres-de-Luchon to Peyragudes - the last mountain stage of this year's Tour - Wiggins still leads overall - by 2mins 5secs over Froome and 2mins 23secs over Nibali. Evans, meanwhile, has dropped from fourth to seventh place at 8mins 6secs.
To observers, it was on the Col d'Aspin - the third of four major mountain passes in the stage - that the beginning of the end came for Evans.
The clock had just ticked over 3.48pm and the Liquigas team of Nibali had formed at the front of the group to increase the race tempo when he was dropped for the first time from the key group that included Wiggins, Froome and Nibali with 41.3 kilometres to go and with the sun burning.
Evans could only see Wiggins's group ride away. And with them was Evans's American teammate Tejay Van Garderen, leader of the best young rider's competition who was told by team management to remain with Wiggins as they set off to reel in all but 10 of a 38 strong breakaway that began earlier.
Van Garderen, who is now sixth overall at 7mins 55secs to Wiggins, said the first sign that Evans was struggling was on the Col d'Aspin.
"A couple of times we tried giving him gels and some food and he was saying something like his stomach wasn't really handling it that well," Van Garderen said. "Maybe the heat was getting to him. He looked fine up until the Aspin and then at the Aspin he started getting dropped."
That Evans was able to rejoin Wiggins's group by the foot of the final climb, the Col de Peyresourde and with the help of Moinard, Briton Steve Cummings and Swiss Micki Schar, was impressive. But that only staved off the inevitable - being dropped again on the Peyresourde with 19 kilometres to go.
However, it was only later that Evans revealed the true extent of his suffering on a brutal day that saw two riders abandon and one other not start.
"I had a few stomach issues just before the race ... when it's an hour or two hours before the race there is not a lot you can do," he said after attending the dope control. "I didn't think it would affect me in the race, but obviously that's not my normal level and it's pretty much Tour de France over for me."
Asked what he could salvage from the Tour now, Evans said with clear resignation: "I don't know [if] I am far enough back yet still to be allowed the freedom to go away in a breakaway. You have to be optimistic, but also you have to be realistic. And obviously this year things haven't been coming together. The year is not over, but certainly the retirement present I wanted to give George Hincapie this year ... the hope and wish for that is."
The Tour has three more stages left. After Friday's final mountain stages there is a 53 kilometre time trial on Saturday from Bonneval to Chartres and then the final and 20th stage from Rambouillet to the Champs Elysees in Paris where one year ago Evans and his BMC charges feted a brilliant victory.
That celebration appears destined to be led by Wiggins, Froome and their Sky teammates that include Australians Michael Rogers and Richie Porte.
Wiggins, who has led the Tour since winning the stage eight time trial, clearly has the strongest of 22 teams in the race; but once again after the finish he had only praise for them. "We saw at the end, it was just down to three, there's not many people left in the race," he said. "The team was incredible again, from the start. I'm just glad that day is out of the way. It was hot out there, everyone reacts differently to it. We're nearly three weeks into this race.
"Everyone is going through different things with their bodies, and everyone reacts differently after the rest day. I'm just glad we passed the test as a team ... It was tough going out there."