Wiggins relaxed about being favourite to become Le Tour’s first British winner
BRADLEY Wiggins crashed out of the Tour de France last year, breaking his collarbone and spending the final ten days on his sofa at home in Lancashire.
From there, he watched an exhilarating race. “It was brilliant,” he says. “I was just loving it. Watching Andy Schleck attack, and the Alpe d’Huez stage at the end. Brilliant.”
He experienced a double epiphany. First he re-connected with the inner fan, the teenager who had been a cycling obsessive, committing to memory the brands of shoe worn by the idols whose posters adorned the walls of his bedroom. Then, as he watched Cadel Evans overcome the specialist climbers to grind out a win that had seemed unlikely, he realised: “I could do that.”
Both Evans and Wiggins are strong time triallists and possess big, powerful “diesel” engines rather than those of a fuel-injected sports car. They lack the lightning acceleration of gifted climbers such as Andy Schleck or Alberto Contador, but they can endure, day after day. It was this ability that allowed Evans to become the first Australian Tour winner. “He had wobbly moments,” says Wiggins, “but he gave it his all, day in, day out – I always thought that was the way I could win the Tour one day.”
This, a first ever British victory, could be just four weeks away. In the Belgian city of Liège next Saturday Wiggins will start the 99th Tour as the bookmakers’ favourite. With Schleck out injured and Contador serving a doping suspension, the main challenge is likely to come from the defending champion, but Wiggins has looked sharper and stronger, winning Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphiné.
In fact, Wiggins’ progression can be traced back further than last year’s crash, to October 2010. He was miserable after failing to repeat his breakthrough performance at the 2009 Tour, where he finished fourth. As the leader of the new British squad, Team Sky, he was out of form, low on confidence, and struggling to cope with the responsibility of being team leader.
A crisis meeting with the Sky principal, Dave Brailsford, led to a new team being assembled around him. Shane Sutton – an important influence on Sir Chris Hoy, too – became more hands-on, as coach-cum-motivator-cum-father figure. “Shane’s the dog in the corner who barks at him every now and again,” as Sky race coach Rod Ellingworth puts it.
A sports scientist, Tim Kerrison, was also assigned to Wiggins. Kerrison previously worked with the Australian rowing and swimming teams, and is described by Brailsford as a genius, although Brailsford is reluctant to say too much, for fear that he is lured away.
Having spent the 2010 season getting to grips with the sport, mainly by following the team in a motorhome that acted as his living quarters and office, Kerrison worked solely with Wiggins in 2011, logging the data from every ride and prescribing a highly specific programme. Wiggins says Kerrison tries to explain the science underpinning the training, “but a lot of the time I’m not really that interested, to be honest. I’ve got so much trust in him that I’m kind of like a gerbil on a treadmill”.
It’s an arrangement that seems to suit Wiggins. “I find it’s easier for me. It’s where it all went wrong in 2010, doing it myself and telling people what they wanted to hear. You can’t cut corners when there are two people looking after you. Because you have to report back to them.”
The scientific, numbers-based approach is the hallmark of Brailsford’s work with the track cyclists who dominated the Beijing Olympics, but it is not without its detractors, especially among the road cycling cognoscenti, who tend to prefer romance and panache to science and calculation.
They would rather see the race decided in the mountains than in the time trials. But, asked to single out the most important stage of this year’s race, Wiggins picked the long time trial on the penultimate day. Ideally – like Evans last year – that would be where he takes the yellow jersey, so that his team isn’t forced to defend it day after day. It doesn’t get much more calculating than that.
Yet Wiggins can hardly be faulted for playing to his strengths. There is also a paradox in this, which also owes to a misconception about Wiggins and Brailsford – that their preoccupation with science and planning means they are devoid of passion. If anything, Brailsford’s focus on science serves as a means of keeping a lid on his enthusiasm. He preaches the value of thinking rationally rather than emotionally as someone prone to the latter.
Perhaps Wiggins has learned this lesson, too, because he has rarely sounded as relaxed as he did this week, on the eve of the biggest six weeks of his career, with a gold medal in the Olympic time trial also in his crosshairs. He says he relishes his status as Tour favourite. “Nobody would have given me that tag a few years ago, so I’m trying to embrace it, because it may never happen again.
“I don’t look at it as pressure,” he continues. “I just need to continue what I’ve been doing since I rolled out for the prologue at Paris-Nice [in March]. There’s no reason to think that when I roll down the ramp in Liège it won’t continue happening. There’s not a great deal to worry about. I’m not chasing form. I haven’t been sick. And my performances help my self-belief.”
The question of how Team Sky will juggle the ambitions of Mark Cavendish, their sprinter, and Wiggins, their overall contender, seems to be fading. Brailsford has admitted that yellow is the priority. The reason hardly needs spelled out. It would be enormous, and it’s no surprise that Wiggins’ mind occasionally wanders to Paris. “Of course I realise what it would mean to win the Tour de France. I love the sport, it’s why I’ve made the sacrifices I’ve made.”
But he knows he won’t win by dreaming. “Ultimately it’s about being level-headed, thinking rationally, going through the process.”
n Richard Moore is author of Sky’s the Limit: Cavendish and Wiggins: The Quest to Conquer the Tour de France (HarperSport, £8.99).