Bradley Wiggins is Tour de France champion. Let that echo for a minute, as if from a carnival loudspeaker. Let it doppler out to the outer reaches of the crowd and then come rippling back in whispers and muted applause, building to a crescendo. Let Wiggins have his moment.
Because he earned it.
Even when winning the Tour de France appears easy, a branded group ride with prize caravan and soigneurs in tow. Even with your team sitting on the front day-after-day, your rivals cowed into submission, a couple of monster time trials sealing the deal, winning the Tour de France is not easy.
First of all, it is hard to ride on the front for three weeks, even in the slipstream of an able teammate. The simple concentration necessary to hold the wheel for hours on end, staying out of trouble, always being in the right place, makes the winner worthy. It is a Chinese water torture of a task. To succeed you must not crack.
There is a tremendous amount of calculation that goes into grand tour strategy. It is one thing to say, we will ride conservatively, cover attacks and then let Bradley win the time trials, but Bradley has still got to win the time trials. Timing the effort and then producing it is a feat beyond imagining, and this too makes the winner worthy.
When the road turns up, things get unpredictable quickly (including the disposition of certain climbing domestiques). When you are a diesel engine, like Wiggins, and the stop/start of sudden attacks doesn’t suit your style, you’ve still got to hold your nerve. The man who can watch Cadel Evans go up the road, bridging to a teammate, and slowly grind out the gap deserves to win the Tour de France. It is a bluff with no aces in the blind, unless there are aces, but who knows? That is the nature of the bluff. That is the power of it.
Every day the yellow jersey performs the ceremony with podium girls and flowers, kisses on cheeks, autographing one hundred versions of the same shirt for sponsors and charities and posterity, submitting to interviews and drug tests. This is a labor on top of the labor, both physically and mentally draining. The longer you hold the jersey, the more of this you must do. Any man who can wear the jersey, perform its duties and ride into Paris still in yellow deserves to win the Tour de France.
That Wiggins had the temerity to lead teammate Mark Cavendish out for the final, winning sprint was a display of pure class. It is necessary to have class to claim the jersey.
There is more, though. First, he was a champion on the track. He rode right to the pinnacle of that discipline and had the audacity to think there was something more. Then, he remade his body in the image of a grand tour champion, beginning with that track racer’s power and then stripping away kilograms of weight and muscle to build an entirely new kind of machine.
There is finishing fourth, just off the podium, and learning that not only has the change worked, but the podium is a possibility. But then there’s still so much more. More work and more calculation, an early season of stellar form, holding, holding, holding that form for the big moment, and then executing, pulling it off and standing there while people tell you it was boring.
A true champion will always bear insults.
This Tour win was not boring, but neither did it happen in a flash. It is not easily digestible in highlight reel or in the nut graph of a newspaper story in French. It’s an epic poem in a stilted meter, a wandering tale like the Odyssey or the Aeniad, with contrived beasts and long stretches where not much transpires, but make no mistake, it is not boring.
No. Bradley Wiggins is Tour de France champion. He earned it. For the sake of the man and the sake of the sport, let’s let him enjoy it.
In 2009, Bradley Wiggins finished 4th in the Tour de France. It was a revelatory result and one that suggested the Briton’s decision to switch from the track, where he was a total legend, to the road, was maybe not as ill-advised as it might have seemed.
But success can be a fickle mistress. What appeared to be a breakout performance in 2009 was made less clearly a turning point with Wiggins’ move to Team Sky for 2010. A settling-in period ensued, during which Wiggins reverted to more human results; 2011 looked better again. Wiggins won the Dauphiné and came third at Paris-Nice. At the back end of the summer he stood on the third podium step at the Vuelta a España.
This week, the gangly Englishman will win the Dauphiné again (barring something catastrophic going down), and the velo-press are falling all over themselves to install him as a firm favorite to stand atop the final GC in Paris next month. Certainly his overwhelmingly dominant performance in this week’s ITT suggests they’re not too far off.
But has he peaked too soon? Shown too many cards?
Defending champ Cadel Evans has shown strong form as well, taking a good uphill victory in Stage 1 of the Dauphiné and time-trialling as well as he always does, which was well enough to wear yellow on the Champs Élysée last year, if not quite good enough to scare Wiggins, who has all sorts of medals in the discipline.
With over 100kms of TT in the Grand Boucle this go round, are these the only two real contenders?
For a moment let’s consider Andy Schleck. He’s had a calamitous spring through injury and indolence, and his current form is probably best described as indifferent. Maybe he’s hiding his true form, but with few racing days and no discernible improvement in his TT skills, will it even matter? A running battle with team manager Johan Bruyneel may also be indicative of a star at his nadir, or else a demonstration of the enormous lengths Bruyneel will go to, to camouflage his team’s strength.
This week’s Group Ride is a real pot boiler. Let’s not go all in on maillot jaune predictions just yet. Let’s try to really evaluate the contenders instead. Other names in the hopper are: Nibali, Menchov, Valverde and Sanchez. Who else? And why?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
It would have been easy, last week, to give over the Group Ride to a Tour prediction competition. We resisted, but no more.
Now that things are beginning to shake out a little, now that we’ve had a chance to espy the form of the favorites, it’s time to lay down our markers.
We’ve seen Contador and Schleck (the younger) come unscathed across the cobbles. We’ve seen Cavendish lose and win. We’ve watched Thor Hushovd win a stage and snatch the green jersey, and we’ve seen Geraint Thomas pull on the white jersey. And while Jerome Pineau currently sports the polka dots, something tells me he won’t be wearing them at the end of the day tomorrow.
And so, let’s do this the right way. Let’s hear your predictions for each jersey, yellow, green, white and dotted. Whoever gets the most right gets an RKP sticker pack. If multiple people get all four right, we’ll award the adhesives to the best climber as determined by an ITT up the Matterhorn on goat back. Best get your goats tuned up.
The yellow jersey, which currently resides with one Mr. Fabian Cancellara, will likely not end on the Swiss’ back. Among the favorites, Cadel Evans is closest to taking it over, but Evans’ climbing talent is not equal to that of either Andy Schleck or Alberto Contador. Can he find other ways to put time into his rivals, or will the maillot jaune trickle down to the top grimpeur?
In that case, the advantage goes to Schleck, but he’s lost his most capable mountain climbing domestique, brother Fränk. The question then becomes whether or not Contador can gap the young Luxembourger in the coming time trials. History suggests he can, but these are only suggestions. The race is still out on the road.
The green jersey competition is probably less open. Thor Hushovd showed last year a shrewdness and opportunism that saw him in green in Paris despite winning just one stage to Mark Cavendish’s six. Oft misunderstood as the “sprinter’s jersey,’ the maillot vert goes to the most consistent rider who may or may not be a consistent stage winner. Hanging around the top of the standings currently is 36-year-old Alessandro Petacchi, a wily veteran who can’t be discounted, and don’t write off Robbie McEwen either. He appears to be back in form after a long stretch of injury and disappointment.
The two jerseys most difficult to pick will be the polka dotted and white. This 2010 Tour is even climbier (not a real word) than recent editions, so there are opportunities for all the best to take points. The key here is that the best climbers don’t always score the most King of the Mountains (KOM) points, because they find themselves more interested in the general classification. That leaves openings for other freakishly skinny, hugely-lunged members of the peloton. The contenders include Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Matthew Lloyd (Omega Pharma Lotto) and Robert Gesink (Rabobank), assuming the latter doesn’t launch himself at the GC. Still, the King of the Mountains may hold a surprise. It may be that a rider like Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha), Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) or Tony Martin (HTC Columbia) makes a run at this prize in lieu of a higher placing in the standings.
British Road Champion Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) currently wears the white jersey, awarded to the best young rider (under 26) on GC. This is a shirt won recently by a veritable “who’s who” of Grand Tour winners, including Andy Schleck (2008, 2009), Alberto Contador (2007), Denis Menchov (2003) and Ivan Basso (2002). This year’s contenders include Gesink, Schleck (again), Tony Martin, Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas – Doimo), and Edvald Boasson-Hagen (Team Sky).
That’s all the help you’re going to get here, though. Riders not named are still eligible for any of the prizes enumerated herein, and I will almost guarantee you they don’t all go to script.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International