Cadel cracks, Wiggins passes toughest test
Team Sky climbing at the Critérium du Dauphiné (Image: Team Sky)
I’m staring at a picture that’s quite obviously been taken within the last couple of days. It shows a line of cyclists being led by Team Sky and making their way up a climb.
At the front is Richie Porte. He is out of his saddle, driving the pace. Behind him, looking gangly and awkward sits Chris Froome.
Then, in contrast to Froome, comes Bradley Wiggins, all smooth and resplendent in his yellow jersey. Minding his back wheel is Michael Rogers. They look a tight knit unit.
The peloton behind the Sky group has dwindled to a final, talented selection. Jurgen Van den Broeck trails Rogers, head up and attentive. Tucked in behind the Lotto Belisol rider is Cadel Evans, hunched over his bike and barely visible. Haimar Zubeldia is there as well.
How often have we seen this scene play out over the past few nights on our television screens?
But then I pause for a moment. This can’t be the Tour. The picture, taken by acclaimed cycling photographer Graham Watson, appears in the latest addition of the British magazine Cycle Sport. It was printed before the Tour began. I scan across and read the caption – Criterium du Dauphine.
I am the first to admit that I had my doubts about Wiggins and Team Sky going the distance at this year’s Tour de France. And while there is still a long way to go, my confidence in their failure has withered somewhat. They are the best prepared team in recent memory and have left nothing to chance. They have not only analysed, practised, planned, bonded and made contingency plans for this race, they have actually rehearsed it.
Preparation aside, Wiggins has surrounded himself with some of the most talented riders in the business and they all seem dedicated to the cause. It is easy to devote yourself to a leader if they are willing to work and put in the hard yards. Wiggins has definitely done this. The Tour de France has been his singular focus since his fourth placing in 2009.
After a couple of near misses, Cadel Evans had unfinished business with the Tour and came back again and again until he achieved his goals. It took Evans seven goes before securing top spot on the podium. Wiggins has similar unfinished business and there is a touch of irony in that the two men, who have worked so hard at transforming themselves into genuine Tour contenders, are now battling it out for the number one position.
Evans has busted a gut at this Tour. He expended a lot of energy staying at the front of the bunch on the run into the sprint finishes and he turned himself inside out trying to gap Wiggins at the finish of both medium mountain stages. He couldn’t.
Wiggins on the other hand, barely had to get out of the saddle to stay on the Australian’s wheel. The extent to which the first week of racing affected Evans’ energy levels may have been reflected in his time trial performance. In boxing parlance, it was round one to Wiggins.
Round two sees the two men slugging it out on the high mountains. The imposing Col du Grand Colombier, the first hors-categorie climb of the Tour, was to be the hurdle that would trip the Team Sky leader. Vincenzo Nibali attacked. Pierre Rolland and Jurgen Van den Broeck had a crack. Sky didn’t panic. There was Porte, churning out the revolutions. There was Rogers, ever watchful. And there was Froome, twitching with anticipation, ready to chase, or protect, or sacrifice if necessary. And there was Wiggins, almost calm within his protective shield of riders. Just as they had practised. Just as they had rehearsed. Just like in the photograph.
While Van den Broeck and Rolland gained a handful of seconds, Sky caught the dangerous Nibali. Evans buried himself at the finish – again – but was unable to shake Wiggins, who floated almost serenely in the reigning champ’s shadow to cross the line with the same time.
His second day in the high mountains – last night’s stage into La Toussuire – was his toughest yet, but Wiggins passed with flying colours. The determined Brit strengthened his hold on yellow while Evans’ dreams of going back to back appeared shattered.
That Wiggins has so far passed every test placed in front of him must leave his team brimming with confidence, their only battle now is to maintain their consistency and shepherd their leader through any bad days that might crop up. There has always been a question mark over whether or not they could replicate their Dauphine form and hold it for an extra two weeks. That question has almost been answered.
The bell rings. Wiggins defiantly wins round two.
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