Tour de France: Bradley Wiggins ends lingering doubts by crushing team-mate Chris Froome in ‘race of truth’
Bradley Wiggins all but confirmed himself as the 2012 Tour de France champion with a dominant time trial performance in yesterday’s penultimate stage. It means he will ride into Paris today, on what is traditionally the showcase stage, confident in the knowledge that, after 98 failed attempts, a British cyclist will finally win the Tour de France.
In his strongest discipline, Wiggins was in control from the moment he left the start house and powered through the 53km time trial to win by over a minute from his Sky team-mate, Chris Froome, who consolidated his second place. It means that the podium will feature two British riders, and there is every chance that Mark Cavendish will win today’s final stage on the Champs-Élysées, as he has done every year since 2009.
“The last 10km I was thinking of a lot of things that were spurring me on to go harder,” said an emotional Wiggins. “I was thinking back to my childhood, my father leaving us when I was a kid, growing up with my mum in a flat in London, and my grandfather, who brought me up and died during the 2010 Tour.
“Cycling is an inspirational sport,” he continued. “When Cadel Evans won the Tour last year, and I was sitting at home with a broken collarbone after crashing out, I’m not ashamed to say that I got on my turbo trainer that night. That’s what cycling does to people.
“Now, to exceed people like Robert Millar and Tom Simpson is incredible. I still never see myself up there with those names. They were people you looked up to and you never imagined you’d be better than them.”
There has been nothing lucky about Wiggins’ win. He came into the race as the favourite, having won three major stage races already this year, and he embraced that status, and then justified it. It meant riding like the favourite: finishing a close second in the prologue time trial and avoiding the carnage of the opening week, which saw several riders leave in an ambulance, including one of his lieutenants, Kanstantin Siutsou, who crashed and broke his leg on stage three.
Some will say that he was lucky to avoid the crashes, but that theory doesn’t hold. In the chaotic first week of the Tour you make your own luck, and Wiggins, after crashing out in the first week last year, had a strategy for staying safe this time. It saw him ride near the head of the peloton all day – easier said than done – behind his giant German team-mate, Christian Knees.
In head-on shots of the peloton you would often see Knees and Wiggins off to one side, as though detached from the rest of the riders. “I stay in the wind the whole day to keep Bradley out of it,” Knees explained. At six-foot-four he is one of the few riders who is taller than Wiggins, by one inch. “It’s hard work, but it’s what I have prepared for all year, and as long as Bradley is happy, I am happy.”
There will be those who say that Wiggins has been lucky to be riding with, rather than against, Froome. On two occasions in the mountains, first in the Alps and then in the Pyrenees on Thursday on the final climb of this year’s race, it appeared that Froome was being held back and told to wait for Wiggins.
On both climbs the gap opened between the two riders as Froome applied some pressure. But they are different kinds of rider, Froome a pure climber capable of such accelerations, Wiggins more of a diesel, who prefers a steady, relentless rhythm. There is no guarantee that, had Froome been allowed to attack, he would have stayed away, or that he would have gained enough time to claim yellow from Wiggins.
La Promenade des Anglais read the headline on the front page of L’Equipe on Friday, above a picture of the dominant pair. But the French sports daily, which supplies the “voice” of the Tour, was disparaging of Froome’s display on the climb to Peyragudes. When he realised he had opened a gap to Wiggins, Froome made a great show of turning around, as though beckoning his leader back to heel, but the lack of subtlety in his gestures led L’Equipe to christen him Mr Bean.
It is one of the ironies of this race that the historic achievement of a first British Tour de France winner has taken place against a backdrop of rumoured discontent in the Team Sky camp. Apart from Froome, Cavendish, the world champion, is believed to be unhappy and angling for a move away. David Millar pointed out this week that Cavendish, when he agreed to sign for Sky early last year, was like most other people in having “no expectation that Wiggo and Froome would be as good as they are. It was a risk on Cav’s part, and whether that eventually pays off or not, I don’t know.”
Cavendish is the favourite to win on the Champs-Élysées today, for the fourth time on the trot, and it has been suggested that Wiggins will provide his lead-out across the Place de la Concorde. It would provide a symbolic denouement to the greatest Tour for British cycling.
There will be no celebrations in Paris tonight, because Wiggins, Froome and Cavendish are flying in a specially chartered plane to Surrey and the Olympic holding camp. While the champagne can wait, the history books will record an achievement to rank among the finest ever in British sport.
There have been comparisons already with Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile, England’s World Cup triumph in 1966 or the rugby team’s equivalent success in 2003; and with Chris Hoy’s three gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, or Steve Redgrave’s five golds in five Games. Perhaps a better comparison is with Jim Clark’s 1965 win in the Indianapolis 500, given that this, too, was seen as a foreign event, and one that a British driver simply could not dream of winning. The next year, Graham Hill become the second British winner – could Froome repeat the trick by following Wiggins next year?
Possibly the most telling fact about the Tour is that, in its 109 history, no British rider has even come close. Robert Millar was fourth in 1984, almost 15 minutes behind Laurent Fignon, the winner. When Wiggins was also fourth, in 2009, he was six minutes behind Alberto Contador.
What Wiggins might now have done, a little like Clark, is create a precedent. With the conveyor belt now moving, few imagine that it will be another 109 years before a second British victory.
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