Chris Boardman, who wore the maillot jaune in three separate editions of the Tour de France, believes that Bradley Wiggins’ Paris-Nice victory yesterday shows that the Team Sky rider has what it takes to become the first Briton to stand on the Champs-Élysées podium in the famous jersey by winning cycling’s biggest race. What’s more, he insists that this year “will be his best ever chance to win it.”
While there are still more than three and a half months to go until the Grand Départ in Liège at the end of June and strong displays at this stage of the season are no guarantee of form being repeated in the summer.
Moreover, with some leading Tour contenders such as last year’s winner Cadel Evans missing – the Australian is defending his Tirreno-Adriatico title – and not all of those who did race Paris-Nice going all out for the overall win, it’s a mistake to read it as a form guide for the three-week race.
Nevertheless, the profile of this year’s 99th edition of the race and a strong display not just by Wiggins but also the other Team Sky riders who controlled the race for him have led many, including Boardman, to conclude that Wiggins, who turns 32 next month, could this July become Britain’s first Grand Tour winner in the oldest and biggest of them.
"Physically and mentally he's in great shape and has the team support. There is more time-trialling in the Tour than there has been in the past, so this could be Bradley's year."
Last year’s Tour saw a 42.5 kilometre individual time trial on the penultimate day in Grenoble, while earlier in the race there had been a 23 kilometre team time trial, but with a Prologue and two individual time trial’s this year’s edition features more than 100 kilometres of racing against the clock.
It’s the first time three stages of that type have featured since 2007 and although Wiggins was fancied that year for the Prologue win in London, the city he grew up in – he would finish fourth, 23 seconds behind Fabian Cancellara – no-one suspected he would be challenging for a podium place just two years later, when he finished fourth to equal Robert Millar’s best ever overall performance by a British rider in the race.
In 2010, Team Sky’s debut season, he finished a disappointing 24th, and last year, having won the Critérium du Dauphiné in June crashed out of the Tour with a broken collarbone at the end of the first week.
However, a podium place at the Vuelta behind Geox-TMC’s Juan Jose Cobo and his own team mate Chris Froome underlined his continuing progression in three-week stage races.
"There are three very big races in France, the Tour de France, the Dauphiné and the Paris-Nice and to become the first Briton in 45 years to win this” – Tom Simpson was the only previous rider from these shores to win it, in 1967 – “is a phenomenal achievement," Boardman continued.
Wiggins had started yesterday’s time trial on the Col d’Eze six seconds ahead of Vacansoleil-DCM’s Lieuwe Westra, who clawed back two seconds on the early part of the climb. The Team Sky rider was stronger on the second half, however, taking the stage by two seconds and the overall by eight seconds.
"He would have kept his cool and made sure that when he crossed the line he couldn't have done anything else. Experience is what helped him see it through," reflected Boardman.
"Stage racing is about consistency," he went on. "It's not about being the best every day, it is about making sure you don't have an off day.
"He's concentrated so hard, he is physically in fantastic shape and he has matured. He is ready to go up that extra little step.
"He is one of the strongest favourites, he is in a select group of three or four people who can win it and after the Paris-Nice triumph you would get very short odds on him doing it."
The absence of the banned Alberto Contador plus less arduous visits to the Alps and Pyrenees than has been the case in recent years, including fewer summit finishes, make this year’s edition a difficult one to call, although as Boardman said, more than 100 kilometres of time trialling will favour Wiggins, among others.
Indeed, earlier this month, Tour organisers ASO announced that the distances of two of the individual time trials during this year’s race would be increased, adding 5 kilometres and giving the opportunity of a gain of a few more precious seconds for the stronger men against the clock.
The distance of the Prologue in Liege on 30 June remains unchanged at 6.1 kilometres, but the two longer individual time trials have both been extended due to a detailed survey of conditions on the ground.
The Stage 9 time trial from Arc-et-Senans to Besançon – perhaps not coincidentally, the hub of France’s watchmaking industry – has been increased from 38 to 41.5 kilometres.
Meanwhile, Stage 19 from Bonneval to Chartres, which will in all likelihood determine the podium positions with just the customary procession into Paris to come on the following day, is extended from 52 to 53.5 kilometres.
Meanwhile Boardman, winner of Olympic gold in the individual pursuit at Barcelona before turning to the road, highlighted the golden age that cycling here is currently going through by saying, "Britain's best ever cyclist has suddenly become a very hard-fought competition.
"My career was all we had for a few years but then we had Sir Chris Hoy with his triple gold medal-winning performance [at Beijing to add to the one he got in Athens], then Mark Cavendish who is heading to be the greatest sprinter of all time.
"Now there is Bradley Wiggins, but if he can take the Tour de France that would probably top them all."
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.