Rarely in the history of the Tour de France has a rider in the yellow jersey been so candid about his emotions. Not only open, but also able to express his feelings with passion and conviction. Longtime race followers remember Tour champions such as Miguel Induráin talking endlessly at press conferences, but merely recounting the minutiae of each day’s racing, things we already knew. And though American winners Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong had ready wit and strong views they didn’t bare their souls like the current Tour leader does.
That’s why Brad Wiggins has been impatient with the media at this Tour when they try to cast aspersions on his and his team’s honesty, or proclaim that first lieutenant Chris Froome is the one who should be standing on the top step of the podium when “God Save The Queen” rings out over the Champs-Élysées on Sunday evening.
Sure, Froome the brilliant climber did drop Wiggins a couple of times before waiting for his leader on Thursday’s steep 3-kilometer ramp to the finish at Peyragudes. And, yes, he did something similar on the only mountaintop finish in the Alps. But the fact remains that, with a couple of stages to go, Wiggins deserves to be wearing the maillot jaune.
Froome supporters tend to forget that Wiggins gained 40 seconds on his teammate on the Tour’s first two time trials, and that the 1:25 Froome lost when he punctured in the hectic finale into Seraing on stage 1 has to be regarded as part bad luck and partly his inexperience at racing in a classics-type environment when everything is on the line. In any case, this Saturday’s 53.5-kilometer time trial to Chartres will settle which of the two is the stronger after three weeks of relentless racing.
Another factor that observers often fail to take into account is the incredible pressure a race leader has to cope with at the Tour. Wiggins has done well in this area—except for his one rant about uninformed Bloggers and Tweeters saying he and Team Sky have to be doping to obtain their remarkable results. Otherwise, the 32-year-old Londoner (who was born in Belgium and now lives in northwest England) has calmly handled the pressure of being a race leader this year at Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie, the Critérium du Dauphiné, and now the Tour. That’s not something the emotional Wiggins could have done earlier in his career; and it’s not something that Froome has had to cope with—yet.
While Wiggins for the past couple of weeks has been a focus of the media, answering post-stage questions on TV, going to doping control and attending the podium ceremonies every day, answering further questions for radio and print outlets, and finally attending the daily news conference, Froome only occasionally speaks with the press and did just one news conference, after his stage win at La Planche des Belle Filles. So while Wiggins is spending an extra hour dealing with the demands of being race leader every day, the younger man is able to relax and recover in the team bus as it heads that night’s hotel. We don’t know how Froome would handle all these commitments or the pressure of leading Team Sky, the highest-budget squad in the world. For now, he’s able to continue his grand-tour apprenticeship by helping his leader—and earning a seven-figure salary doing it!
Certainly, it was embarrassing for Wiggins to be gapped a few times by Froome on the nasty little climb to Peyragudes on Thursday, but Wiggins, with his usual frankness, later explained how his emotions took over and he lost concentration. On the other hand, all his rivals fell back trying to follow Wiggins, including the valiant Vincenzo Nibali, who was coping with a strained calf muscle all day and didn’t get his wish of shooting for the stage win.
I can’t recall any rider in the yellow jersey so openly describing his feelings when he realized that his dream of winning the Tour de France was becoming a reality. Maybe it didn’t enter his mind, but one fact that made his Thursday performance so poignant was that Wiggins’s boyhood hero Tom Simpson wore his yellow jersey (for only one day, in 1962) on a climb just 10 kilometers away from Peyragudes. That would be the brutal ascent from Luchon to Superbagnères, raced as a time trial in ’62, when Simpson couldn’t make the best defense of his lead because of an injured knee.
That day in yellow was what drove Simpson to pursue his dream of one day winning the Tour until his tragic demise battling up Mont Ventoux during the 13th stage on July 13, 1967. And, having witnessed Simpson’s drive and determination, I’ve always felt that his spirit and ambition live on in the mind and body of Bradley Wiggins.
When, atop the Col de Peyresourde on Thursday, Team Sky’s two-million-dollar man sensed that a fading Nibali wouldn’t be challenging him on the upcoming ramp to the stage 17 finish, Wiggins knew for the first time that the Tour was his. “It was an incredible feeling to go over the last summit,” he said. “For the first time since I’ve had the lead I thought I’d won the Tour, and all the fight went out the window…. It was an incredible feeling. It really was. I almost had tears in my eyes at that point.”
Well said, Bradley. We Brits are proud of you…whatever the rest of the world may think.