Wiggins destined for time trial gold
2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins leads a new era of clean cycling. AFP PHOTO / JOEL SAGET
“There’s just one name and it’s Bradley Wiggins. He’s the one to beat.” In any normal year, Tony Martin would not be so downcast ahead of a time trial event.
But this year, the German has good reason to limit his expectations.
Martin would have been perhaps the hands-down favourite to succeed Fabian Cancellara as the men’s Olympic time trial champion in London.
A series of bad luck, however, puts even a place on the podium in doubt. After returning from a serious injury at the beginning of the season, the 27-year-old looked to be on form in the Tour de France prologue until he punctured close towards the finish in Liege.
One day later, Martin crashed heavily and broke his scaphoid but chose to race through the pain barrier in a bid to win stage nine, a 41.5km time trial to Besanson. Disaster struck again – and another puncture saw Martin finish a huge 2:16 down on winner Bradley Wiggins.
As for Cancellara, the Swiss chrono specialist did win the prologue in Liege to take the race lead – but he conceded the yellow jersey after finishing 57 seconds behind Wiggins in Besancon.
Both Martin and Cancellara had retired from the race by the time Wiggins utterly dominated the second time trial, a 53.5km ride to Chartres.
To make matters worse, Martin withdrew from the Olympic road race on Saturday with 90km remaining while Cancellara crashed heavily inside the final 30km.
The Olympic time trial champion will defend his title at Hampton Court on Wednesday – but the right shoulder he smashed in the Tour of Flanders is giving him serious discomfort, while the 31-year-old has numerous contusions, bruising and haematoma from his uncharacteristic spill.
Wiggins worked hard, in vain, for British team-mate Mark Cavendish – but given the condition of his two big rivals, the in-form Wiggo is the overwhelming favourite to take gold on home soil just 10 days after being crowned Britain’s first ever Tour winner.
On paper, the route is ideally suited to all three riders.
It’s long and flat, with a total rise of just 125 metres over the 44km course. Don’t be confused by the place names of some of the areas on the route: Seven Hills Road does not feature seven hills, while Strawberry Hill is about as steep as a strawberry.
It both starts and finishes in the grounds of the wonderful Tudor Palace of Hampton Court Palace, once the royal residence of the colourful King Henry VIII (the one who kept chopping off the heads of his wives).
A small loop takes the riders (who will leave at 90-second intervals) out to the Queen Elizabeth II reservoir before a longer loop, with a couple of tight early bends, heads south-west towards Walton Common and Cobham.
There follows a fast 12km stretch which is virtually dead straight – the kind of terrain where the superior power and technique of riders such as Wiggins, Cancellara and Martin really comes into play.
The scenic final section of the course includes two segments alongside the Thames and the crossing of Bushy Park (along the same route taken by the Road Race) just ahead of the finish.
If Cavendish was the undisputed race favourite for the Olympic road race, then Wiggins is virtually a guaranteed gold. You see, so many factors came into play in the long road race prior to the finale – factors that were pretty much beyond the control of Team GB. The race of truth is different: it’s an individual ride where the best wins.
As such, think of the whole thing as the equivalent to what would have happened had the road race came to a bunch sprint.
Wiggins is in commanding form and it will take a piece of Martin bad luck – that’s to say an ill-timed puncture – to derail him now.
People claim that the pressure will be too much for Wiggins to win gold in his home town – especially after the disappointment of Saturday’s road race. But did we see Wiggins cave into pressure for three weeks in July?
He knows exactly what it is he has to do – and on top of that, his two big rivals are nowhere near 100 percent.
Should something quite extraordinary happen that sees Wiggins fail to take the gold then he’ll surely at the very least take the silver or bronze that would see him earn the seventh medal of his Olympic career – taking him one ahead of British rowing legend Sir Steve Redgrave who notched six in his Olympic career.
Wiggins becoming Britain’s most successful Olympian – at least until track cyclist Sir Chris Hoy takes to the Velodrome later this week – would be a fitting conclusion to a remarkable season.
But can anyone else upset Wiggins’s annus mirabilis?
While it’s unlikely they’ll both pull off a miracle and snare medals, you’d expect one of Cancellara or Martin to make the podium – even with their respective woes. That leaves one final slot for an outsider.
The obvious choice – given the Games’ location – is Chris Froome, the man who finished second to Wiggins in both of the long time trials in last month’s Tour.
Froome worked his socks off for Team GB in the road race but he pulled the plug well before the finish in The Mall, suggesting he was keeping something back for the ITT.
While the forthcoming Vuelta may be more of a priority for the 27-year-old, he would definitely like to add an Olympic medal to his surprise runner-up spot in the Tour.
The fastest rider outside the two British men in the Tour’s second time trial was Spain’s Luis Leon Sanchez, who held the best time for a long period until the inevitable happened after the Team Sky duo zipped down the ramp.
Sanchez has been Spain’s national time trial champion for four of the past five years and is a definite tip for the podium.
Silver medallist at Beijing, Sweden’s Gustav Erik Larsson has not been in the same form this year and may well be out-performed by his Vacansoleil team mate Lieuwe Westra of the Netherlands, who has been very strong all season.
Germany’s Bert Grabsch is a constant performer against the clock; before contracting an illness, French national time trial champion Sylvain Chavanel showed enough to make him one to watch; Denis Menchov of Russia is due a solid ride; and Australian Michael Rogers carries his nation’s hope after the withdrawal of an out-of-sorts Cadel Evans from the event.
Triple former world time trial champion Rogers is back to the best form of his life and may find himself even faster when devoid of the team duties he carried out for Wiggins and Froome during the Tour. (It’s just a shame that Richie Porte was not selected over Evans in the first place: the Tasmanian is riding brilliantly and took fifth place in the final ITT in the Tour.)
But the two riders who could really cause an upset in the face of the established big three are the American youngsters Taylor Phinney and Tejay van Garderen.
Phinney won the Giro prologue in May and could struggle to replicate that form on the longer 44km course – but the flat nature of the route will favour the tall powerhouse, and he’ll enter with the firm belief that he’ll have a card to play.
Van Garderen is perhaps a safer bet after his wonderful performances in all three time trials during the Tour: fourth, fourth and seventh respectively.
So, here are my final predictions for the men’s Olympic time trial: Gold – Wiggins, Silver – Cancellara or Martin, Bronze – Phinney or van Garderen. With Sanchez and Froome the outside bets to cause an upset.
Felix Lowe is an English photographer, writer and Arsenal fan with a penchant for pro-cycling. Eurosport writer and blogger, Felix has covered the major cycling races in the pro calendar for the past decade and is now taking up the sport himself, at the ripe age of 31.
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