Tour de France: Time trial to glory
2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins leads a new era of clean cycling. AFP PHOTO / JOEL SAGET
What a difference a year makes. 12 months ago I sat in my darkened lounge room and cheered with unbridled joy as Cadel Evans ripped up the final individual time trial.
Although it was quite obvious early in the stage that Evans would wipe out his deficit to Andy Schleck, the exact moment it happened was spine tingling.
The graphic at the bottom of the television screen listing the riders’ names suddenly reversed. Evans went to the top, Schleck dropped underneath, and the seconds began to build up against the Luxembourger’s name.
I punched the air in jubilation and began posting a series of embarrassing Facebook statuses, declaring to the world what an historic moment we were witnessing. I loved that time trial.
Fast forward to 2012 and, as an Australian, I’m not loving time trials any more. The race against the clock, once Cadel’s friend, is now his enemy. It has adopted a new darling, one who is so proficient, that he leaves Evans and the others trailing in his wake like… like a Schleck!
Unless something untoward happened in the Pyrenees last night, Bradley Wiggins will not only consolidate his position as the number one rider of this year’s Tour, but rub salt into his rivals’ wounds by increasing his lead – perhaps substantially – over tomorrow’s 53.5 kilometre individual time trial. The spine tingling moment of last year will be long forgotten as we herald in a new – and worthy – champion.
But what do we make of time trials?
If the stages of a Tour were grouped together as a family unit, then the individual time trial would be the ugly sister. The psychedelic swirl of the peloton, the urgency of a chase, the frantic final moments of a bunch finish, are all lost in the race against the clock. Instead we watch images of a lone cyclist on an unusual bike, ceaselessly turning the pedals in a bid to defeat an invisible foe. Even the scenery seems the poorer after the Alps and Pyrenees.
The only time the race of truth gets truly exciting is when it plays host to a come from behind victory. Evans achieved this last year and even though it was expected, it was no less exciting for Australian fans. But it pales into insignificance against what was perhaps the greatest time trial of all time. A time trial that took place in what was perhaps the greatest Tour de France of all time – 1989.
The American with a French sounding name, Greg LeMond, went head to head with local hero Laurent Fignon, not just in the time trial, but throughout the whole Tour. To make things even more interesting, LeMond was coming back into cycling after a hunting accident in which he was accidentally shot, while Fignon had been out of form for some time.
The scene was set from day one when both riders recorded the same time in the prologue. It wasn’t until the team time trial that the two could be separated. Fignon sent the French into raptures as he slipped into the yellow jersey by 51 seconds. Not to be outdone, LeMond used the mid-race individual time trial to not only make up lost ground on Fignon, but to strike a psychological blow on the Frenchman, stealing the yellow jersey from him by a mere five seconds.
Fignon, a superior climber, struck back at Superbagneres to regain yellow. He lost it again in Orcieres-Merlette, and by stage 16 was 53 seconds behind LeMond. Then came Alpe d’Huez. The determined Frenchman spun his way to the top in double time and, in the process, not only wiped out his deficit, but gained 26 seconds over the stunned American.
With three stages left to ride, Fignon had stretched his lead to 50 seconds. The newspaper l’Equipe was already preparing its front page as the final stage – an individual time trial – got underway.
With only 24.5 kilometres to make up the time, the American’s dream comeback to the Tour seemed to be over. But sports science was beginning to play its part, and coupled with the psychological advantages gained in the earlier time trials, LeMond was not without his chance.
Ignoring the sniggers from riders and spectators alike, he was quite an oddity as he took to the starting ramp wearing not only a bulbous aero helmet, but with aero bars attached to his bike! The more traditional Fignon was resplendent with his bouncing pony tail and wire rimmed spectacles.
As each time check was passed, the French camp became more and more anxious. The cry of “Hold the front page!” would have been echoing through the press room at l’Equipe. The American was coming.
The final scenes played out on the Champs-Elysees. As Fignon approached the finish line, LeMond looked nervously at the time clock. The numbers ticked by ever so slowly. It was going to be close. The beginnings of a smile started to play at the edges of LeMond’s mouth. Then the smile turned to a shout of joy. Fignon crossed the line and collapsed, completely shattered, into the arms of his supporters. He had lost the Tour by a slender eight seconds.
The ugly sister it may be, but the time trial is often the most important stage of a Tour. It spearheaded LeMond’s epic victory against Fignon. It has been used to devastating effect by Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong. In recent years Carlos Sastre and Alberto Contador have used it to hold off potential challengers to their titles. Last year Cadel achieved his life-long goal with a dominant final time trial. This year it has been Wiggins’ main strike weapon.
He set up his Tour and gained a psychological victory over Evans in the prologue. He consolidated his position as Tour leader by annihilating his opposition in the mid-race individual time trial and will ride to glory on the back of the final time trial.
He has no peer among his general classification counterparts when racing against the clock. He has raced to his strengths and exploited the weaknesses of others. In short, he has raced the perfect Tour.
Well done Bradley Wiggins.