Tuesdays With Wilcockson: Tour verdict—man versus machine

If the Tour de France were raced on ergometers then Brad Wiggins would already have done enough to be declared the winner. His stage victory on Monday in the Besançon time trial over his own Sky teammate Chris Froome, with defending champion Cadel Evans 1:43 adrift, was so dominant that a power expert would tell you it’s mathematically impossible for Wiggins to lose this Tour. If he repeats the pace he rode on Monday at the second long time trial awaiting them on the final weekend, he could gain another two minutes on Evans, which means the BMC racing leader has to gain some four minutes on the remaining mountain stages, not just two minutes as has been written. And given the fact that Evans gained no time on Wiggins in the two climbing stage so far, his current handicap is impossible to overcome. On paper, at least.

Thankfully, much of the Tour is raced on French back roads over terrain that can throw out unexpected obstacles, and in weather that can suddenly change from benign to belligerent. When Spanish rider Luis Ocaña jumped to a GC lead of 9:46 in the Alps over the great Eddy Merckx midway through the 1971 Tour, nearly everyone said the race was over. But Merckx fought like crazy, took back almost two minutes on a marathon 250-kilometer-long breakaway with his teammates on a flat stage to Marseille, and then beat Ocaña by 11 seconds in a subsequent time trial at Albi.

Merckx went into the Pyrénées still 7:23 behind his Spanish rival and knew he had to attack on every mountain stage if he were to catch Ocaña. On the first of those stages, the Cannibal descended the steep and winding Col de Menté like a hand-guided missile in a dramatic thunderstorm on road awash with gravel. Ocaña slid out on a switchback and as he stood up, another rider banged into him and sent him flying. Ocaña was airlifted to the hospital, and Merckx cruised the remaining week to his third consecutive yellow-jersey victory.

With a week to go in the 1987 Tour, strong French time trialist Jean-François Bernard won the uphill TT to the summit of Mont Ventoux and took a 2:34 overall lead over runner-up Stephen Roche (that gap compares with the 1:53 that Wiggins holds over Evans today). People, particularly the French, said the Tour was over and Bernard would win. But the next day, teams with leaders immediately behind Bernard on GC used brilliant tactics to make a joint attack on a semi-mountain stage. Bernard and his teammates chased for a couple of hours, holding a one-minute gap before cracking under the pressure. Bernard lost 4:18 that day and never wore yellow again.

I’m not saying Wiggins and his Team Sky henchman will crack or crash and that Evans will win this Tour, because things may well go another way. We all remember 1992. Even Wiggins. The Brit was then age 12, already bike crazy, and watching the Tour on TV. Talking after Monday’s time-trial win, the first Tour stage victory of his career, Wiggins said, “I remember seeing Induráin do this in Luxembourg in 1992. And I just did something like that.”

Yes, on stage 9 of the 1992 Tour (Wiggins’s win on Monday was also on stage 9), in a 65-kilometer circuit time trial at Luxembourg, Miguel Induráin beat his nearest rivals by more than three minutes. And though he was challenged in a monster break through the Alps by Claudio Chiappucci, the Spaniard cruised in the Pyrénées to finish in Paris 4:35 ahead of Chiappucci. Maybe Wiggins will do something similar. But it’s far from guaranteed.

In a response to a question about defending the yellow jersey through to Paris, Wiggins said Monday, “I’m only human, not a monster, and I might have a bad day … and Cadel is not going to give up.” Merckx didn’t give up in 1971. Roche didn’t give up in ’87. And Evans won’t give up in ’12.


For more of John’s work covering the Tour, drop by pelotonmagazine.com.

Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson

Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti

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  1. dstan58

    I remember J-F B.’s comment, sitting in the team car being interviewed before the stage after he took the jersey. Tugging at his collars (kind of like ‘brush your shoulders off’), “Oui, yellow, it looks pretty good on me, I think.”

  2. Big Mikey

    I’d be interested to see how Froome got to the point where a climber was able to beat noted TT strongmen. Was having a hard time seeing how Contador could be the best climber and the best time trialer, and here we go again.

    Also, a poorly-timed raid by the Gendarmes can do a bit to mess up a leaderboard.

  3. DanL

    Thanks for the added perspective, John. It’s hard to recall in the hype (and congrats to Sky for surpassing it so far), but recent tour (mis)adventures have included neutral-zone slips, stubborn illnesses, media cars/fences, dropped chains, rest-day steaks (?), grocery bag snags, rolled tubulars, mtn ravine detours, chilling storms, many many jours-sans plus a few heroic long-range Voeckler/Schleck-attacks.
    Lots more surprising action to come on the road and not all of it crashes — right…?

  4. Markus

    Still two weeks to go, and lots can happen. I almost hope that something happens, cause otherwise it will get pretty boring watching Wiggins’ sideburns for the next two weeks!

  5. RealDogBoy

    I’d like to see Nibali or Brajkovic have a huge day on one of the mountain stages and take over the lead. Underdogs are fun to root for.

    But it’s probably going to be Wiggins. He looks really strong and Team Sky seems to be the best team at the Tour.

  6. Nico

    Lost a lot of respect for Wiggins with the manner of how he left Garmin. A little to much like lebrons decision. I really hope he chokes, he is to cocky for his own good. Chris Froome would be a much better champion…. He should already be a winner of a grand tour

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