This time last year Australia’s Cadel Evans still had it all to play for in his quest to become his country’s first Tour de France winner.

Instead at 31, he finished a brave second for the second year running — a mere 58 seconds behind eventual winner Carlos Sastre. Yet even before this year’s race most experts agreed he had lost his best chance to win the Tour. Now a year older even the worst pessimist couldn’t anticipate how disastrous Evans 2009 Tour campaign has become.

This week has seen him inexplicably go backwards in the Alpine mountain stages (climbing being his major strength) so that instead of clawing back a three minute plus deficit in the battle to head up the General Classification (GC), he’s imploded. Overnight despite a respectable but still disappointing individual time trial where each rider races the clock while separated by two minute intervals, his 12th place saw him lose further time to be 29th. That leaves him a staggering 38min 20sec behind the maillot jaune (yellow jersey) of Spaniard Alberto Contador.

For Australia’s cycling cheer squad the extent of Evans demise has come as a genuine shock. Neither Silence Lotto’s team management or the ultra defensive media diva that has characterised Evans reign as our major Tour GC hope in recent years; have yet to provide a convincing explanation as to what “really” ails him.

Although he drops cryptic hints about illness and references to “politics” and “stress” being factors that he can’t or won’t go into during the race, the real truth is probably more to do with Evans fragile psyche. Of possibly feeling betrayed if not unloved? The Belgian team like so many others has national ties to sponsors and the emergence of one of their own, Jurgen Van Den Broeck who’s performed much better than Evans in the mountains and now sits 17th much to the delight of management in an otherwise dismal Tour for them, seems to have either disillusioned or shaken Evans confidence. A parting of the ways despite Evans having one more year on his contract seems a formality at the end of the season, with both parties happy to call it quits and move on.

Before the start of this year’s race much was made of how whatever happened throughout the previous stages, it would be Saturday night’s 20th stage that would ultimately sort the men from the boys on the infamous 21km ascent of Mount Ventoux. For the first time in the Tour’s history a mountain summit finish would effectively decide who would ride into Paris the following day in yellow. Unless some high unlikely disaster befalls the maillot jaune during what is traditionally a final day procession for its proud wearer as the sprinters look for their last opportunity to parade their dare-devil skills, Mount Ventoux is game time.

But not even Tour legend and “comeback kid” Lance Armstrong can believe Mount Ventoux will deprive Contador of victory, and instead hand it to him or Andy Schleck as the only ones with any realistic chance of heading off the Spaniard who eats up mountains like candy. In fact he does it so conclusively that three-time Tour winner and American anti-doping campaigner Greg LeMond has questioned the legality of Cantador’s stage 15 final Category 1 first Alpine climb to Verbier in Switzerland.

LeMond is a long-time cynic of Armstrong’s “clean” reputation but to others he’s seen as bitter and twisted that his own former Tour glory has been largely overwhelmed by Armstrong’s staggering seven Tour wins. Given the hugely increased surveillance and blood passport detection now in operation internationally, LeMond must be smarting in how to explain Armstrong having seemingly lost little of his ability in his amazing comeback. After three and a half years retired from competitive cycling since he won the 2005 Tour before his Tour Down Under return in January; at 37 and despite an injury interrupted preparation, even the Texan’s greatest fans are amazed.

Yet LeMond’s belief Contador’s Swiss climb that saw him take over the race lead, was more or less superhuman in its speed to the top and command over his rivals, has as expected excited the interest of the media. When asked about LeMond’s doubts at a news conference after the time trial, Contador refused to play ball.

Through his translator he said: “I won’t answer this question.” Naturally this response did nothing to silence further conjecture. As an unwanted distraction it certainly didn’t get in the way of his winning the time trial by 3 seconds from Saxo Bank’s Fabian Cancellara. But the true value of his win was putting still more time between him and his nearest GC rivals. Andy Schleck in second is now 4min 11sec down, while Astana teammate Armstrong has moved up a place to be third at 5min 25sec in arrears.

Bradley Wiggins the major surprise of the Tour is now fifth just 11 seconds down on Armstrong. Earlier in the Tour alive to the fact that his surprising ability to climb as a former track star has raised some eyebrows, Wiggins got on the front foot to say while he could see how some people might wonder about his new-found abilities, it was all down to hard work and losing weight. This made a vital difference to his ability to now climb with the best of them.

Tonight’s 178km 19th stage is no sprinters’ “gimme” and is more typical of the kind of tricky test that might provide another breakaway final finish among those still hopeful of a stage win with a decidedly difficult category 2 final climb that seems certain to cause the peloton to scatter if they haven’t already.

Still whatever transpires tonight with the Schleck brothers Andy and Frank perhaps ready to put Contador to yet another test by fire in that climb that ends 16km before the final descent to the finish in Aubenas, it’s still the prospect of Mount Ventoux offering that dramatic denouement that is never far from everyone’s thoughts including the sprinters who have to climb it. Saturday’s stage is also predicted to be raced under a scorching sun just to add extra degrees of difficulty. But anyone who believes Contador between now and Paris can give up more than four minutes or more to be overtaken, is a supreme optimist.

Yet they exist not least among those who want to deprive Contador of the A$795,000 first prize to be split among his Astana teammates, which considering Armstrong claims to be riding for nothing for Astana would be some small reward for now playing second fiddle to the Spaniard. .

Overnight Armstrong announced he will be riding the Tour again in 2010, but this time heading up his own team to be sponsored by US retail giant Radio Shack. He’s also talking about returning to the Tour Down Under with his new team, and while he has not yet announced any recruits, some teams will be getting very nervous. It’s particularly interesting that he’s become very chummy with sprint sensation Mark Cavendish who gets one last chance on those eight Paris circuit loops bookended by the Louvre and Arc de Triomphe to show again why he’s the fastest man on the Tour.

*There’s a Kiwi Tour blog that provides all kinds of factual background info, but worth particularly checking out via this page link Tour de France demystified Part 8 is an insight by SBS “voice of the tour” Phil Liggett as to how he and his commentary sidekick Paul Sherwen manage their international duties each day. It includes this Lance Armstrong anecdote from Liggett when he joined them in their commentary cubbyhole two years ago:

He comes in and sits down between Paul and I. We’ve got this guy with a big white polystyrene board that supposedly acts as a sound proofer, I ask Lance a question but I can’t hear his answer as this guy swings down with the huge board. Lance is wondering what the hell is going on! Lance has to give his answer to Paul Sherwen as he’s still in America and I’ve just moved out to Britain.

Liggett says Armstrong’s comments at the end of that session sum it up, “Is this what you guys are doing all the time?” Liggett said yes, Armstrong said “you’re mad”.

We are fortunate that what happens on the Tour is bought to us by the incredibly knowledgeable and ebullient Liggett and Sherwen. But also the pictures, especially on Sunday with resplendent panoramas of Paris from the air and over the ground with its famous landmarks as featured backdrop. The city of light hopefully under a shimmering sun truly sparkles on this day of days.