Tuesdays with Wilcockson: Le Tour—Confirmations and revelations
A year ago, after Bradley Wiggins crashed out of the Tour de France, his Sky team’s directeur sportif Sean Yates muttered to no one in particular: “Game over, i’n’ it?” It was game over for that Tour as far as GC was concerned, though Sky’s Norwegian star Eddy Boasson Hagen did take two stage wins. And that was a big improvement on the British super-team’s lackluster 2010 debut when there were no stage wins and Wiggins was its best finisher in 24th overall.
The disappointment of those two Tours was part of Sky’s steep learning curve. Team boss Dave Brailsford and his legion of behind-the-scenes operatives kept their ambitious goals, but they adjusted their preparations. In particular, Brailsford hired an altitude-training expert and began sending his key players (Wiggins, Michael Rogers, Richie Porte and Chris Froome) to training camps in the Canary Isles, where they put in thousands of feet of climbing every day at varying speeds and intensities, ate the best foods, and developed an uncanny bonding for the races ahead.
The results were immediate. Sky put Froome (second) and Wiggins (third) on the podium at the 2011 Vuelta, and this year the team scored a succession of stage-race victories for Wiggins at Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphine. Sky was so dominant at the Dauphiné (including second overall for Rogers, and fourth for Froome) that Wiggins came into this year’s Tour as the odds-on favorite. But translating that good, season-long form into a three-week-long peak for the Tour was uncertain, especially as the best British results in 98 previous Tours were two fourth places (Robert Millar in 1984 and Wiggins, when he was riding for Garmin-Slipstream, in 2009).
The world now knows that Sky achieved its initial goal of a Brit winning the Tour within five years; and now Brailsford is out to conquer the rest of the cycling world, by targeting all three grand tours in the same year and then winning all of the monumental classics. But for now, let’s just take stock of what Sky and the other teams achieved at this 99th Tour de France, in terms of riders who confirmed their talent and those who were true revelations.
Brad Wiggins (GB), 33, Sky
No one in the history of cycling has previous succeeded in sweeping Paris-Nice, Romandie, Dauphiné and Tour in the same year—though that still doesn’t compare with what Jacques Anquetil achieved from March to July in 1963 (when the French legend won Paris-Nice, the Vuelta a España, Dauphiné and Tour), or what Eddy Merckx did in the first half of 1970 (winning Paris-Nice, the Giro d’Italia and Tour, along with Paris-Roubaix, Ghent-Wevelgem, Flèche Wallonne and the Belgian national title!). Even so, Wiggins’s 2012 season (which might also include an Olympic gold medal next week!) has been unprecedented in modern cycling. The highlights of his Tour included his first-ever stage wins (both long time trials) and third places at the Planche des Belles Filles and Peyragudes summit finishes. But the biggest plus was his consistency over the whole three weeks and the total solidity of his Sky team.
Vincenzo Nibali (I), 27, Liquigas-Cannondale
This charismatic Italian had previously won the Vuelta and twice finished on the Giro podium, but his podium spot at the Tour brought him new stature. Despite the disadvantage for him of 100-plus kilometers of time trialing, Nibali never gave up and his third place was a huge improvement from his previous best of seventh in 2009. For sure, he was a victim of Sky’s catenaccio-style defense, but he still managed to stretch the British team with his accelerations on the mountaintop finish at La Toussuire.
Jurgen Van den Broeck (B), 29, Lotto-Belisol
This ever-improving Belgian climber was one of the few consistently aggressive riders in the 2012 Tour and fourth place overall was his just reward. Especially as his Lotto team was more focused on getting stage wins for German sprinter André Greipel, so Jelle Vanendert was Van den Brouck’s only true ally in the mountains.
Mark Cavendish (GB), 27, Sky
The world champion played a back seat to teammates Wiggins and Froome for most of the Tour, and yet Cavendish again confirmed his stature as the Tour’s fastest-ever sprinter by becoming the first man to win four consecutive stage wins on the Champs-Élysées and bringing his total of career stage wins from 20 to 23—one more than the previous record for a sprinter set by Frenchman André Darrigade a half-century ago.
Thomas Voeckler (F), 33, Europcar
His Tour couldn’t have started in worse circumstances, having barely recovered from a knee injury, being the center of an investigation by the French judiciary into alleged doping, and getting booed by many of his French fans. But Voeckler showed that his long spell in yellow last year was not a fluke by recovering his top form to win two stages, the first from a disparate breakaway at Bellegarde-sur-Valserine and the other with a long solo break through the Pyrenees to Luchon—which saw him claim the climbers’ polka-dot jersey that he ably defended till Paris.
Pierre Rolland (F), 25, Europcar
This ambitious young Frenchman last year astonished the world by winning at L’Alpe d’Huez and placing 10th overall at the Tour. Rolland again surpassed expectations this month by winning the tough alpine stage to La Toussuire and moving up to eighth overall. But his poor time trialing (only 64th last Saturday at Chartres) probably means that he’ll never be a podium contender.
Chris Froome (GB), 27, Sky
In only his second Tour (he placed 84th on his debut at age 23 for Team Barloworld), this Kenyan-born Brit showed that his runner-up spot at last fall’s Vuelta was a true indication of his abilities, and his placing second overall to team leader Wiggins at the Tour was nothing less than sensational. Froome clearly has to learn more about team etiquette; but his climbing stage win at La Planche des Belles Filles, ahead of defending champ Cadel Evans, and his second place to Wiggins in the two long time trials mark him as the strongest candidate to win a future Tour—maybe even next year.
Tejay Van Garderen (USA), 23, BMC Racing
The die was cast for this confident young American’s future when he signed a big contract to move from HTC-Highroad to BMC this year, and he more than confirmed his potential at this Tour. After placing 81st in his Tour debut last year, Van Garderen exceeded even his own high ambitions by placing fifth overall (ahead BMC team leader Evans), winning the best young riders’ white jersey, and taking fourth places in both the prologue and first long time trial. His big breakthrough marks him as America’s best hope to win a future Tour.
Peter Sagan (Svk), 22, Liquigas-Cannondale
What can you say about a young man who came into his first Tour already with 13 wins in 2012 and cruised through the three weeks like a veteran to take three stage wins (and three second places) and the green jersey? His Liquigas team didn’t push Sagan in the mountains but he still proved a valued aid to team leader Nibali, and no one would be surprised should the Slovak phenom drop the baby fat and win the yellow jersey in three or four years’ time.
Thibaut Pinot (F), 22, FDJ-BigMat
Very few people outside of French cycling had even heard of this youngest rider in the Tour before he emerged as one of its foremost climbers. Insiders knew about his three mountaintop victories in his rookie 2010 season (on the Ballon d’Alsace and Grand-Colombier in France and at Presolana in Italy), but not even his biggest fans had expected Pinot to take a solo win on the Porrentruy stage (after ditching the rest of a breakaway on the 17-percent slopes of the Col de la Croix), placing second at La Toussuire and fourth at Peyragudes, to finish 10th overall. He could be the first Frenchman to win the Tour since Hinault in 1985.
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