After another superlative time trial performance from the maillot jaune, the only thing we can say is that Bradley Wiggins is simply the best – for this year at least, writes Anthony Tan from Chartres.
Exploiting their strengths – strength of leader, strength of climbers, strength of team – has only exposed and exacerbated others’ weaknesses, which in part explains Sky’s supremacy throughout these past three weeks.
When French president François Hollande took a side visit to the Tour yesterday in Brive-la-Gaillarde, he said: “For the British, it’s a really big day.”
As much as Mark Cavendish’s half-kilometre-long sprint left mouths agape the world over, monsieur Hollande wasn’t so much referring to the latest exploits from the Manx Missile, which, tout de suite, put him back in contention as one of three favourites (the others being André Greipel and Peter Sagan) to win the London Olympic Games road race, now just a week away.
He was more anticipating what I felt was a foregone conclusion following the ninth stage, twelve days ago and before the race had even reached the Alps.
There in Besançon, a place the Tour has been to nineteen times now, maillot jaune Bradley Wiggins – who has not fallen out of the top two positions on GC the entire race and, barring an absolute catastrophe on the largely ceremonial ride to Paris, will continue to do so till the end – stamped his authority in a discipline that, for this season at least, he has fared better than anyone.
Over 41.5 kilometres, the 32-year-old, accompanied by his trademark pork-chop sideburns, demolished his rivals in a textbook display of time trialing, opening a 35-second margin to teammate Christopher Froome and 57 seconds to the once-unbeatable Fabian Cancellara.
Today was a carbon copy rendition from Sky’s top two. Unequivocally, the two best GC riders in this year’s race.
The performances to date grant Great Britain six stages in this year’s Tour, and following tomorrow’s final run-in to the cobblestoned streets of the Champs-Élysées, the once fledging cycling nation cum cycling superpower is likely to make it seven.
A one-in-three strike rate. When one considers where they came from to where they find themselves today, it takes my breath away. It really does.
At the end of 2009, at the press launch of Team Sky, boldly declaring that they’d groom a British Tour de France winner within five years, I felt the statement smacked of naivety and braggadocio – a team with more money than sense, I believed.
Affirmation of my sentiment came during Team Sky’s inaugural season, when Wiggins, with his pay packet nicely fattened, went from fourth overall at the 2009 Tour to twenty-fourth, almost forty minutes behind then winner Alberto Contador.
But Sky learned, and learned quickly. Now, less than three years in, they stand on the precipice of realising exactly what team principal Dave Brailsford said they’d do but few outsiders thought possible.
However, their meticulous, methodical approach to racing is eerily reminiscent of the era when the Tour was imperiously dominated by Lance Armstrong. And Wiggins’ attributes are not dissimilar to that of Miguel Indurain, who, for all five of his victories, stuck to a tried and true, albeit somewhat staid, formula by dominating the time trial and defending in the mountains. It therefore sits poorly with some who have criticised this year’s edition as lacking panache – the very element race organiser Christian Prudhomme thought he’d receive in droves when he unveiled the parcours in Paris last October.
But can we really criticise a man and his men for playing to their strengths? The all-or-nothing attack of Andy Schleck en route to the Col du Galibier last year or, before him, Charly Gaul’s hundred-kilometre solo breakaway to win the 1958 Tour, are stuff of legend. Spectacular as they are, however, high-risk, last-ditch attempts are anachronistic with modern-day racing (unless you come to the Tour underdone and/or poorly prepared, as Schleck did last year), and certainly inconsistent with the calculated, risk-averse methodology of Team Sky.
In fact, exploiting their strengths – strength of leader, strength of climbers, strength of team – has only exposed and exacerbated others’ weaknesses, which in part explains Sky’s supremacy throughout these past three weeks. And why the most interesting side story has been the rivalry between Wiggins and Froome that will surely reach fever pitch before July, as both remain contractually tied to the team till at least 2013 (Froome is signed till 2014). However, as Wiggins demonstrated when he moved across from Garmin, his incumbent, at the end of the 2009 season, contracts can be broken.
“The one thing I’d like the team to be remembered for is unity. The guys get on really well and they all back each other,” said Brailsford Friday, after Wiggins led Cavendish out for his twenty-second scalp at La Grande Boucle.
I’m not so sure about unity being a defining or lasting legacy. Froome, had he been a leader on another team, may well have won this Tour and in years to come, may rue his decision to obey orders on the slopes of La Toussuire and Peyragudes. Only yesterday, Cavendish said after his win in Brive-la-Gaillarde: “I’m currently under contract for three years, but obviously it’s not easy. It’s like (Wayne) Rooney playing in defence.”
For now, though, we should stand up, applaud and celebrate a history-making winner of the world’s biggest bike race, just as we did one year ago.