Tour de France: Bradley Wiggins won’t wobble
RECEIVED wisdom has it that the Tour de France is won in the mountains, but the defending champion, Cadel Evans, tried to put that theory to the test yesterday.
On the 13th stage from Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux to Cap d’Agde the Australian sent his BMC teammates to the front of the peloton as they raced along the shores of the Mediterranean and began to be buffeted by strong crosswinds.
The tactic is certainly worth trying: it worked for Lance Armstrong in the Camargue, which is nearby, in 2009. And it certainly looked dramatic yesterday, with the red-and-black BMC riders massing at the head, upping the pace, stretching the line and forcing it to split, and sending ripples of panic through the peloton as other teams fought to move their leaders forward so they weren’t caught out.
But the coolest customer was the rider in the yellow jersey, Bradley Wiggins. Throughout the chaos he remained near the head of affairs, always surrounded by Sky teammates. Evans had a second chance to ruffle him, on the vicious, steep climb through the town of Sète, 25km from the finish, and he duly went to the front and accelerated.
A small gap opened back to Wiggins, but the Englishman didn’t panic, just as he didn’t panic on the Col du Glandon on Thursday, when Evans attacked with over 50km remaining. Instead, he maintained his steady tempo and gradually reeled him in. They went over the top together, with Evans having managed only to send out the message that he isn’t finished, and won’t give up his crown without a fight. That bodes well for the Pyrenees.
Yesterday, however, it ended in a victory for the German sprinter, Andre Greipel, his third of this Tour. But if Wiggins had not made enough of a statement with his cool response to Evans’ jabs, he made another one in the final kilometre, when he went to the front and chased down two late breakaways in an effort to set up the sprint for his Norwegian teammate, Edvald Boasson Hagen. It was a brilliant lead-out, but Boasson Hagen couldn’t quite finish it off, coming in third, with the Slovakian prodigy Peter Sagan, who is in the green jersey, second.
Today’s stage to Foix should maintain the status quo, as should tomorrow’s to Pau. But after Tuesday’s rest day come two brutal Pyrenean stages, from Pau to Luchon on Wednesday, then the final summit finish of this year’s race at Peyragudes on Thursday. A good omen for the British riders is that the first of these two stages follows the same route as the 1983 stage won by Scotland’s Robert Millar – the first of his three victories in the Pyrenees.
As much as Evans might have wished to sow seeds of doubt in Wiggins’ mind yesterday, the Alps suggested that he is not the force he was last year. It also suggested that he is not Wiggins’ greatest threat this time. Instead, it is Chris Froome, Wiggins’s Sky teammate, who looks to be the strongest on the steep climbs, of the type they will tackle on Wednesday and Thursday.
It means that, while the chances of a first-ever British win look very good indeed, there remains a question over whether it will be Wiggins or Froome. The former is well known for his Olympic gold medals, but the latter is all but unknown to a non-cycling audience, having grown up in Kenya and started cycling in South Africa as a teenager. He only began representing Britain in 2008.
Froome has so far played the loyal teammate to Wiggins, other than for a brief moment on Thursday, on the climb to the finish at La Toussuire. When he accelerated from the lead group it caused carnage behind and, critically, appeared to put Wiggins in difficulty. As Wiggins dropped back, Froome pressed forward, then fiddled with his earpiece. Then he looked around and sat up. The message had come from the team’s sports director, Sean Yates, that Froome was not to persist with his attack. “He asked me to slow down,” said Froome, “so I waited for him.”
In this incident there were echoes of the 1996 Tour, when Jan Ullrich emerged as the main “threat” to his leader, Bjarne Riis, and of 1990, when Miguel Indurain was visibly stronger than his leader, Pedro Delgado.
But the most obvious parallel is with 1985, when Greg LeMond finished second to his teammate Bernard Hinault. One stage in particular was reminiscent of Thursday, when LeMond escaped with Stephen Roche in the Pyrenees, while Hinault, in the yellow jersey, struggled. On that occasion, just like Froome on Thursday, LeMond was ordered to wait. LeMond came to regret that and always maintained he could have won that Tour, and so Froome was asked on Thursday whether, in five years, he might also regret sacrificing his own chances – if that is what it comes to – to help Wiggins win.
“Obviously that’s a thing I’m going to have to see in five years’ time,” he shrugged. “I’ll follow orders at all costs. I’m part of a team and I have to do what the team asks me to do.”
In 1985, Hinault and LeMond resolved their differences with the older rider promising LeMond that he would help him win the following year. It isn’t clear whether Froome would be open to such an offer, nor whether Wiggins would be prepared to make such a pledge. On the evidence of his strength in the Alps, bar that one brief moment to La Toussuire, and his cool, collected performance yesterday, he might not need to.
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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