HIGH up on Green Mountain, Sir Dave Brailsford found a vantage point to watch the conclusion to the decisive fourth stage of the Tour of Oman. It was on the inside of the final hairpin, on a rocky precipice that towered over the road. From it, you could see most of the final two kilometres.
When the helicopter appeared to signal the imminent arrival of the riders on Thursday afternoon, Brailsford and Team Sky coach Tim Kerrison squinted down the road. A group of about six riders was visible. “Is that a black jersey?” asked Brailsford.
It was. Chris Froome was with the leaders, who also included Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans. They inched upwards until, with 500 metres left, and with Joaquim Rodriguez just ahead, Froome attacked. And Brailsford lost himself, sprinting to the edge of the precipice, yelling: “Go on Froomie, go on Froomie! Go on!”
When Froome crossed the line second, just seconds behind Rodriguez, to claim the overall race lead and put himself in a strong position to win the Tour of Oman overall, Brailsford lost himself again. He leapt up and down and slapped Kerrison on the back. “People ask if I still get the buzz,” he said. “Well, there’s your answer.”
More than seven minutes after Froome, the other Sir on Team Sky, Bradley Wiggins, rolled slowly across the finish line. He had shepherded Froome to the front at the base of the climb, then peeled off and ridden up at his own pace. Wiggins says that he came here tired, and isn’t concerned about not being able to battle Contador and Evans so early in the season.
But Brailsford’s reaction to his “other” star’s performance was interesting and possibly revealing.
This is the first time Froome and Wiggins have ridden together with Froome as the leader and Wiggins in a supporting role. It could be a rehearsal for the Tour de France. But “could” is the operative word, given that Oman is not France and that if Wiggins, whose main goal is the Giro d’Italia in May, is in form in July, it is hard to imagine him not trying to win the Tour again.
Brailsford insists his riders are professionals, that egos don’t come into it, that they will do whatever is best for the team. Egos don’t come into it? The Pope may almost no longer be the Pope, but he is still a Catholic.
Making the Sky sub-plot even more fascinating is the fact that the two are so different. Froome is diffident and self-effacing. Wiggins, this week voted Britain’s wittiest celebrity by Dave TV (just ahead of Boris Johnson), is, well… Everyone now knows what Wiggins is like.
Only, maybe they don’t. There is a hardness and a steel to Froome and a shyness and sensitivity to Wiggins (he has admitted he was so distressed by Froome’s “attacks” in last year’s Tour that he almost went home) that confuses the picture.
Further muddying things, one is a maverick, the other “mechanical” but perhaps not in the order you’d expect. David Millar put it best: “Brad’s your archetypal class-A athlete who does everything in an incredibly detailed way. He’s mechanical. Whereas Froome is a bit looser, a maverick, and very much a self-made man, Brad is ‘manufactured’.”
Manufactured by British Cycling, where he has long been considered the golden boy, which is what made Brailsford’s glee at Froome’s performance so interesting.
Froome’s steel is not evident when he talks. As he spoke on Friday evening in the six-star Shangri-La hotel in which the riders have been enjoying unusual luxury this week, he was careful and cautious, despite being poised for the first stage race win of his career. Wiggins, who shuffled into the same room 20 minutes earlier, had been cavalier and charismatic.
This week has been more important for Froome than Wiggins. He kept using the “C” word. Confidence. “Coming here my team-mates were maybe wondering if I would be on the podium or top five or somewhere,” said Froome. “To come away having beaten a lot of overall contenders, gives my team-mates a lot of confidence. I would say it’s showing I’m worth backing. It’s quite a daunting feeling knowing that everyone is there for you.
“But being able to finish it off on days like today [Friday], by winning a stage, I know that’s what everyone here is working for. That makes it all worth it.”
What about confidence in himself? “It’s still very early days but I think that when I came here there was a question mark about where I’d be with all these big names. So I guess my confidence is growing this week.”
And as for Wiggins? “Bradley’s been here in a different role, helping me, looking after me, and he’s actually been really great,” said Froome. “He’s been through all this last year, having the team behind him, having that pressure, so it’s been really good for me to have him by my side and, in a way, mentor me through this. He’s made a lot of calls out on the road this week that have helped a lot and made things a lot easier.”
Wiggins was similarly generous towards Froome: “He’s stated what he wants to do this year, he’s come out and he’s way ahead of his opposition. It’s very impressive but he’s still remained incredibly relaxed. He doesn’t look like someone who has the pressure of trying win the Tour [de France] this year.”
Wiggins knows all about that, which seems to be why he is reluctant to say that he will be trying to win it again this year. Another reason for targeting the Giro instead is to avoid what happened in 2010, when he tried to follow his fourth-place finish at the 2009 Tour and, by his own admission, failed.
“Going through all the winter months, I never thought for one minute that I wanted to do it all again,” Wiggins explained. By “all” he means the Tour, and the build-up to it.
“It was: ‘No way, I ain’t doing all that again.’ But I’ll do something else, which is completely different and a new challenge. If I did the same races, I would have the direct comparison with last year, and I wanted to avoid that. I didn’t want to put that pressure on myself.
“I knew I wanted to go out and compete at a high level again,” Wiggins continued. “I didn’t want to retire or go through a 2010 season and fail, and have to deal with that. So I had to find something to inspire me and for me the Giro is something I would really love to try to win.”
Yet Wiggins has also said that he and his coach, Kerrison, are confident he can ride the Giro, recover, and arrive at the Tour in the same shape as last year. He is keen to present himself as the plan B for Team Sky in July, then quick to add that you need more than just a plan A.
Keeping his options open, in other words. Prepared to support Froome, but also breathing down his neck.
Life has changed completely for Wiggins, of course, and it would doubtless change for Froome if he won the Tour, although perhaps not to the same extent. He may succeed Wiggins as Tour champion, he is unlikely to inherit his “Britain’s wittiest celebrity” title.
Wiggins says the “craziness” has calmed down a little, although if he is riding on home roads he is sometimes waved down. How does he respond? “I say, ‘I’m at f***ing work! Want me to come to your work and tell you to turn off your machine while I take a photograph?’”
A wry smile, and he adds: “Or I pretend that I’m French.”