Three-time Olympic track champion Bradley Wiggins could end Britain’s search for Tour de France glory when he lines up as the favorite for the fabled yellow jersey in a week’s time. The 99th edition of cycling’s main event will start with a short prologue time trial in the Belgian city of Liege on June 30 and finish three weeks later in Paris on July 22. And Wiggins, whose road racing career has come on leaps and bounds since a fourth place finish overall in 2009, has emerged this season as the man to beat during the 3,479 km epic.
Since a morale-sapping crash which ended his 2011 campaign, the 32-year-old Londoner has rebounded to finish third overall on the Tour of Spain as well as winning a number of prestigious stage race victories. He defended his Criterium du Dauphine title, an eight-day French stage race which is often likened to a mini-Tour de France, only two weeks ago. In between both triumphs he won, in 2012, the Paris-Nice and the Tour of Romandie thus becoming the first rider in history to win all three stage races in a single season.
“This is all a road to winning the Tour hopefully, that’s the goal,” Wiggins said after his second Dauphine success.
With two-time champion Alberto Contador and former champion Andy Schleck both out of this year’s race, Wiggins is defending champion Cadel Evans’ biggest threat. Contador, who won the yellow jersey in 2007, 2008 and 2010, is currently serving a suspension, which ends in August, following a positive test for clenbuterol during the 2010 edition. As a result, he was stripped of his third title, which has since been handed to Schleck. In the midst of one of his worst seasons to date, it seemed an almost logical, if unfortunate occurrence that the Luxemburger announced his withdrawal from the Tour two weeks ago due to injuries suffered in a crash at the Dauphine.
Of course, on paper, there will be a handful of strong contenders for the top five places in the race’s general classification. Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas), the 2010 Tour of Spain winner, Belgian Jurgen van den Broeck of Lotto, a fourth place finisher in 2010, and Canada’s recent Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin) will all fancy their chances. But Team Sky and BMC are well equipped and will be doing everything to protect, serve and work for their respective team leaders on a course which is riddled with unprecedented steep climbs and pitfalls.
Australian Evans, 35, battled for years to finally win the yellow jersey and will be no pushover. “I now know that I can win and my race this year is almost identical to what I did last year,” he said. “We’ll have a yet stronger team for this year’s Tour.”
Going in Evans’ favor, potentially, could be Team Sky’s bid to go for sprint glory with Mark Cavendish and yellow jersey glory with Wiggins an approach that some feel could hinder both riders’ respective plans for success. But Cavendish, a 20-time stage winner in his time with previous teams, has indicated he will be doing everything to help the team be successful on both fronts.
“I know the push for the GC (general classification) podium will make it more difficult for me to repeat the success I’ve enjoyed the last few years. But I’ll compete and – as always – I’ll dedicate myself to making it a successful Tour for Team Sky and, let’s hope, for Britain.”
With 25 categorized climbs, this year’s race has even more than previous years. Crucially, it also features nearly 100 km of time trials, a fact which plays into Wiggins’ and Evans’ hands. But in a bid to shake things up, Tour director Christian Prudhomme has included a number of steep climbs on which he hopes the outsiders will stake their claim for overall success.
“There’s only one recommendation I would make, and that’s to tell the riders to dare (to attack),” Prudhomme said on the fringes of a visit to Liege-Bastogne-Liege in April. “There will be plenty of stages where riders can dare to make a difference. We’ve spread out the difficulties sufficiently to make sure there is potential for surprise, and opportunities for the main protagonists to go on the offensive.”
Wiggins has the experience to know he will have to take his campaign day by day. But ahead of arguably the biggest month of his career, he appears confident.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time and I’ll do everything I can to win the Tour de France,” said Wiggins. “Hopefully we can do the business for ourselves and our fans, and become the most successful British-based cycling team ever.”