THE Tour of Britain, which starts in Peebles today, has taken on a whole new significance for Sir Bradley Wiggins.
Call it unfinished business, or a chance to salvage something from a pretty disastrous season, but Wiggins is approaching his national tour in a way he never has in the past, working closely with his old mentor, Shane Sutton, and spending the past week checking out the stages.
Moreover, the six-man team selected by the Team Sky principal, Sir Dave Brailsford, is the strongest they have ever fielded. “It’s a race we want to win,” said Brailsford yesterday. “We are going there this year with real intent.”
“It’s our home tour, and its actual standing in the world order is disproportionate to what it means to us,” Brailsford continued. “Brad is in good shape. It’s a great opportunity for him to engage with the home fans and get stuck in and try to win.”
If Wiggins is ever going to win the Tour of Britain, this is surely the year. The main reason is Tuesday’s 10-mile time trial in Knowsley on Merseyside. It is a stage made for Wiggins.
He has started this race with serious intent before, in 2010, only to make a tactical blunder on day one. Last year, after his Tour de France win and Olympic time trial triumph, it was more a lap of honour, but he didn’t finish, falling ill and pulling out before stage six.
Since its inception in 2010, Team Sky’s lacklustre performances in the national tour have mystified observers. Last year they managed a hat-trick of stage victories with Mark Cavendish, who returns this year with his new team, Omega Pharma-QuickStep. But overall honours eluded them even last year, when a British rider, Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, was finally crowned champion. Tiernan-Locke rode for the Scottish-based Endura team then joined Sky over the winter. But his first season with the big boys has been a virtual write-off. He hasn’t even made the Sky team for a defence of his title.
After a triumphant 2012, it is fair to say this year has been more testing, certainly for Wiggins, and also for Brailsford, even though Chris Froome made it two Tours de France in a row for Sky.
This week, a figure from the past re-surfaced when Sean Yates, who retired as sports director last winter, gave a couple of interviews to publicise his forthcoming autobiography.
As well as making what might have been considered an unhelpful comparison between Froome and Yates’ old team-mate, Lance Armstrong (“the biggest engine ever to get on a bike,” said Yates of Armstrong, “apart from maybe Chris Froome”), he delivered a damning verdict on the staff at his old team. “To be brutally honest, there is no one at Sky who knows much about bike riding,” said Yates. “In general, this year especially, the guys running the team don’t know enough about bike-riding and a lot of the riders went into the Tour overtired. They are made to race too much, too long, too hard.”
“Sean is entitled to his opinion,” is Brailsford’s response. “People can think what they want. I’m happy with the way the team is operating. I’m happy with the knowledge and expertise we have. I think we can be pretty happy with our season.”
Sky’s team also includes one of the revelations of last year, young Brit Josh Edmondson, and strong domestiques Bernhard Eisel, Mat Hayman, David Lopez and Ian Stannard. It is a formidable squad for the tenth edition of the revived Tour of Britain that is the best yet.
The pick of the rest is Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, the Colombian climber who finished second to Froome at the Tour. Garmin-Sharp’s Dan Martin, the Irishman who won a stage in the Pyrenees, is another standout. But the biggest rival to Wiggins could be Quintana’s team-mate Alex Dowsett, the Essex 24-year-old, who beat Wiggins in the time trial at the Giro d’Italia.
The absence of Froome is a disappointment. Brailsford did consider including him “but we decided a long time ago he’d do an American block, with the [recent] WorldTour races because he’s up there on the WorldTour rankings.” Froome will join Wiggins in the GB team at next week’s world championships in Florence.
Meanwhile, the Vuelta a Espana will finish today with a 41-year-old, Chris Horner, set to be crowned the oldest-ever winner of a Grand Tour. Having never performed so consistently before, and given his age and his previous association with Armstrong, Horner’s performances have attracted some suspicion.
Brailsford said: “There are a lot of tired bodies out there, the season’s catching up with some, and he is well rested [Horner missed most of the season with injury]. But we know what it’s like when people see a performance and jump to a conclusion, so I’m not jumping to any conclusions.”