Abandoning the Tour de Suisse after his crash in Stage 4 is surely the final nail in Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France selection coffin.
But things could be worse for Wiggo: he could have just signed a deal to join Belkin.
After a pulsating Criterium du Dauphine over the border in France, this week’s Tour de Suisse has struggled to replicate the drama of the race usually deemed the little brother of the Grande Boucle.
Indeed, in Switzerland most of the talk has been about what’s happening off the bike rather than on it: namely, Belkin’s termination of their sponsorship deal, and British riders Wiggins and Mark Cavendish’s respective tumbles onto the tarmac.
Even before the race started, there seemed an air of inevitability about how things would pan out for Wiggins. The 2012 Tour winner arrived off the back of his appearance on the BBC in which he admitted he was “gutted” to be missing out on the Tour’s Yorkshire Grand Depart.
Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford may have hastily insisted that no final decision was going to be made with regards to his team’s Tour selection until after the Tour de Suisse – but his words seemed primarily bent on calming the excited British media rather than giving Wiggins any false hope.
The fact that Wiggins entered the race as a domestique to the returning Sergio Henao suggested that the race was more of a formality – a training exercise ahead of the Commonwealth Games – rather than any ostensible opportunity to put himself in the Tour shop window.
A disappointing performance in the opening prologue was followed two days later by Wiggins plummeting down the overall standings after losing more than two minutes in the hilly stage three.
It turned out that Wiggins was suffering from that uncannily familiar scourge of Sky this season – a mild chest infection. Wiggo had even been on a course of antibiotics – Sky clearly holding back their corticosteroid TUEs for top dog Chris Froome rather than his faltering support cast.
Funnily enough, it was while riding off the back of the peloton and taking things easy – no doubt while dreaming of Glasgow more than Leeds – that the whereabouts of Wiggins in July was finally decided.
“Ironically, I was the last man in the peloton, trying to stay out of trouble when it happened,” said Wiggins after the crash that saw him lose the best part of 12 minutes in stage four. “They all slammed on the brakes ahead of me but there was another rider riding full gas who rode straight into the back of me.”
Swelling on his right thigh and knee kept Wiggins away from the start on Thursday. Both Wiggins and Sky announced that he would be back on the bike and in training within the next 24 hours – aiming to recover in time for the British National Time Trial Championships in Wales in a week’s time.
There was no mention of the Tour.
There was really no need. We all know now that Wiggins will not be there. Even if Froome’s vulnerability was shown in the Dauphine with his crash last Friday, there’s clearly no place on the team for someone as divisive as Wiggins – especially when he’s short of form and coming back from illness and injury.
It’s a shame, clearly, but at least the Yorkshire fans will have someone like Mark Cavendish to cheer on. Although the Omega Pharma-Quick Step sprinter had a heart-in-mouth moment of his own on the day Wiggins packed his bags and said goodbye to the circus.
24 hours after Cavendish opened up his Swiss account, the Manxman was picking himself up off the floor after an acrobatic fall in the chaotic finale of stage five. When Trek youngster Danny van Poppel came out of a tight corner with too much speed and ploughed into Orica-GreenEdge’s Matt Goss, Cav could not avoid his sprawling formerteammate.
Showing remarkable reactions and instinct, Cav rolled into a ball as he was propelled over his handlebars, landing heavily on his back after a full somersault – but vitally avoiding any injury to trailing limbs.
He eventually crossed the line simmering in anger, but you can bet there was diluted by lashings of relief for it really could have been far worse.
It’s hard to see how things can be any worse for team Belkin, however, who seem about as likely to feature in the pro peloton next year as Wiggins does turning out for Sky beyond 2014.
Although they only signed a two-and-a-half year deal to sponsor the Dutch team formerly known as Blanco and Rabobank prior to last year’s Tour, Belkin are exercising a clause in the contract to terminate their involvement at the end of 2014.
Having already experienced the turmoil that followed Rabobank’s sudden exit from the fold, the likes of Bauke Mollema, Sep Vanmarcke and Moreno Hofland – who have all recently extended their contracts until 2016 – are seemingly now left up the creek without the proverbial paddle.
Team manager Richard Plugge stressed that while the collaboration was to end, “an intensive search for a new sponsor” was already well on the way and the team nevertheless still had “full confidence in the future”. But this is hardly the most ideal preparation for the Tour de France.
Such a turn of events is hardly a surprise when you consider that the sport’s number one team – Colombia-HTC – folded just a few years ago. Last summer we saw the sad demise of both Vacansoleil and Euskaltel – and sponsors are clearly struggling to make sufficient returns on their investment.
Still, it seems a bit rich that Belkin, a California-based electronics company, should – ahem – pull the Plugge so soon after the Tour of California. Perhaps they didn’t really appreciate the global appeal of cycling, overestimating the residual domestic benefits of sponsoring a WorldTour team.
With another team now threatened with folding, it seems even crazier than before that fallen Formula One ace Fernando Alonso is still seeking to put together a top tier cycling team from scratch, as opposed to go in and reinvigorate a project that already has infrastructure, cohesion and history.
Last year, a deal to step into the sponsorship shoes of Euskaltel fell apart at the eleventh hour, while proposed collaborations between Alonso and both Saxo Bank and Cannondale also came to ziltch.
Perhaps now is a time for Alonso to reconsider and think about working with a Dutch set-up with proven pedigree, one that includes a host of talented riders such as Mollema, Wilco Kelderman and Robert Gesink.
Or will the Netherlands’ 5-1 drubbing of Spain in the World Cup be too big an obstacle to climb?