Has Bradley Wiggins raced his last Tour de France?

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Bradley Wiggins' past two years have been a roller coaster. (AFP PHOTO / LIONEL BONAVENTURE)

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It’s not only Chris Froome who is relieved about Bradley Wiggins’ absence on the 2013 Tour de France. The defending champion himself is no doubt in a much better place knowing he doesn’t have to go through all the stress once again.

Winning the Tour was always Wiggo’s big goal – but even the most casual of onlooker last year could see that it wasn’t exactly a happy process.

Not only did Wiggins have to maintain his form for months on end, winning three stage races coming into the Tour to establish himself both as Sky’s number one but also the pre-race favourite; he then had to go on and succeed where many before him have failed: win as the entire world expected him to do so.

Those three weeks in July were the culmination of a very long process that stretched right back to the time.

In 2005, Wiggins decided to switch from track to road cycling.

To be more precise, it was the culmination of the realisation of the fact that he could win the Tour – a seed that was sown after his third-place finish in Paris for Garmin in 2009.

He then had to deal with the duel set-backs of underachieving in 2010, when he finished a disappointing 23rd, and crashing out with a broken collarbone in his first Tour for Sky one year later.

More specifically, while winning the Tour in 2013 was the culmination of Dave Brailsford’s master plan for the British team Sky, it was also the crowning moment of a season in which Wiggins seemed destined to become the first Briton to win the Tour – just 10 days ahead of the Olympic Games in his birth town of London.

Look at the body languages and interviews with Wiggins during the the 2012 Tour de France and it was impossible to miss how stressed he was.

All. The. Time.

He clashed with journalists, refused to answer questions, called cameramen c***s; was forced to voice his stance on doping in a rest day piece in British paper The Guardian.

Throw into the ring the whole issue of the internal battle with team-mate Froome and it must have been pretty bleak – for all the ultimate glory that ensued.

What was the defining moment of his career was also the hardest, most stressful and traumatic part.

And then consider this: winning the Tour was only 50 percent of the job.

Instead of switching off and celebrating like a lunatic, Wiggins had to retain his focus and deliver the time trial Olympic gold medal that everyone expected from him at London 2012.

“I found last year’s Tour to be quite stressful. I wouldn’t say it was a happy team environment. There were a lot of questions from the outside about the leadership.”

These aren’t the words of Sir Bradley Wiggins – but they are surely ones whose sentiment he would have shared.

These are the words of Chris Froome, speaking to David Walsh of The Sunday Times last week as he bids to assume the mantle of his team-mate and deliver a second successive Tour victory for Britain and Sky.

So far, so good. Like Wiggins a year before him, Froome has been in top form throughout the season – winning four stage races en route to entering the Tour as the overwhelming favourite.

Froome is looking so accomplished on the bike that it’s hard to forget that his victory in the Tour of Oman in February was the first overall stage race victory of his career.

The difference between Wiggins last year and Froome this year is a mental one. Froome is happy.

Barring one difficult moment – just before the 2013 Giro d’Italia, where Wiggins stated his intention to win in Italy and then go all out to defend his Tour crown two months later – Froome has been calm, serene and convincing.

Where Wiggins was nervous, stressed and on edge – albeit still delivering the results – Froome seems remarkably laid back.

That’s primarily because he has not had to cross paths with Wiggins. With the exception of Oman, the two have not lined up in Sky colours together this year – and will probably not do so until 2014.

While it’s a relief for Froome not only to be given the Sky leadership over Wiggins, but also to be able to attack his goals without the yoke of Wiggins weighing on his shoulders, the 28-year-old Kenyan-born rider is also generous in his acceptance that Sky will be weaker – and his task will be harder – without Wiggins there to help.

“It would have been much better for me if Bradley was fit and willing to be a super team rider,” Froome told Walsh.

“The damage he could have done in the team time trial. He could have ridden at the front for the 25km of the team time trial in Nice, just pulled us to victory. And to have that kind of engine in the mountains would have been a great asset.”

But Froome is also aware that cycling isn’t won only with physicality and strength; it’s also a mental and psychological battle.

And the absence of Wiggins – over the course of the whole season, not merely for the forthcoming Tour – has done Froome a world of good.

“The races we’ve done this year, I already get the feeling that it hasn’t been as stressful as last year. I’ve felt pretty much everyone has enjoyed themselves,” Froome said, adding:

“Regardless of the results we get, I would like us to come away from the race with a god feeling about the time we had.”

Of course, this must be taken with a pinch of salt.

Froome is a serious competitor and he will not be happy merely to have had a jolly time pedalling over the roads of France this July.

He wants to win the 100th edition of the Tour de France, clearly.

But his point is that, should he succeed, it will be while smiling – something Wiggins could never say about much of his career-defining season last year.

With that in mind, perhaps it’s time we just gave Wiggins some slack.

Anyone who has read his autobiography – anyone who has merely seen him in action when caught unawares by a reporter’s microphone – will understand that Wiggins is a man who has succeeded in life in spite of his many demons.

Even Froome admitted to Walsh last week that, “Bradley is not always the approachable and communicative about how he is feeling or about the situation on the road”.

His issues aside, Wiggins is an extremely dedicated professional.

He’s calculating, passionate, hard-working, immeasurably talented, clever and honest; even, some of you may be shocked to hear, gracious.

Last week, Wiggins – who hadn’t made any personal statements since withdrawing from the Giro with illness and ruling himself out of the Tour with injury – opened up to The Guardian.

“For me it was always about winning the Tour,” he said.

“I’ve done that. If I’m honest I don’t think I’m prepared to make those sacrifices again that I made last year, with my family and so on. I’ve achieved that I’ve achieved. I’m incredibly happy with that.”

In a season of so many highs last year, overt happiness was surprisingly low on Wiggins’s radar.

There was a nice moment when he stood on top of a Sky team car on the Champs Elysees, draped in the Union flag; we also saw it when he sat on the throne at Hampton Court Palace, making V signs with his fingers, as a gold medal draped around his neck.

He also didn’t look so stressed when, slightly tipsy, he picked up his BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award just days before being receiving a knighthood from the Queen.

These fleeting moments of happiness have come in stark contrast to the darker emotions we have seen Wiggins display on a bike since last August, emotions that have been as glum as the grey and turbulent Giro skyline.

The great thing for Wiggins is that he seems at ease with the current situation. He’s done what he’s done. Things have changed. It’s now Froome’s turn. And he’s okay with that. At least, for the time being.

“Chris has really stepped up,” Wiggins told The Guardian. “He’s delivered now and he looks like he’s really going to be there for a few years to win a few Tours maybe.”

Wiggins knows that Froome is five years his junior; he knows that Froome is the present and the future of Sky.

But he also knows that he – Wiggins – has already achieved what he set out to do. And that must be a nice feeling.

Sure, he may be the first Tour de France champion not to defend his crown because of injury since Stephen Roche in 1988.

But, more importantly, he’s still Briton’s first Tour winner – and nothing can take that away. Even Chris Froome.

“There has been a natural selection this year through Chris’s performances and my performances that he warrants being the team leader; and if he wins the Tour, that continues through to next year. I can live with that.”

Wiggins says he will now make new targets for the remainder of the season and beyond. The Vuelta is not one of them.

Instead he will target the World Championships in Tuscany, the Tour of Britain and – perhaps looking further forward – a classic like Paris-Roubaix, a race he has always held in high esteem.

But should Froome slip up in this year’s Tour; should there be anything to suggest that perhaps we have all been a bit to hasty in spelling out a changing of the guard – you can bet that Wiggins may take that as a further challenge and a chance to ride back to the top of Sky’s roster.

Has Wiggins raced his last Tour de France? I wouldn’t be so sure.

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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