Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins has outlined his plans to achieve his two big targets for the 2012 season – a tilt at the overall title in the Tour de France in July followed by the Olympic time trial in London. But one former winner of the maillot jaune, Stephen Roche, believes that in targeting both the yellow and green jerseys, Team Sky may be biting off more than it can chew.
Moreover, the Irishman warns that due to rule changes, Mark Cavendish can ill-afford being hauled before the race jury again if he is to successfully defend the latter.
Wiggins, a surprise fourth overall in the 2009 Tour when riding with Garmin-Slipstream, finished a disappointing 24th in Team Sky’s debut at the race the following year. Then, last July, a crash resulting in a broken collarbone forced him out of the race during the opening week.
However, he recovered to finish third in the Vuelta behind Geox-TMC’s Juan Jose Cobo and Sky team mate Chris Froome, and then went on to win World Championship time trial silver at Copenhagen, where he also played a key role in Cavendish’s road race triumph.
In an in-depth interview with The Guardian conducted this week at Team Sky’s training camp on Mallorca, Wiggins insisted: "Last year proved that I've become much more of a complete rider.
“I'm not just a time triallist any more,” he explained. “I've become more of a climber now – who still keeps that time trial as strong as ever. It gives me such self-belief. I feel a different athlete. I feel a different person in a lot of ways. I feel much more professional and dedicated to my trade than I used to be. I appreciate this ability I've got – and don't take it for granted any more. That fits every aspect of my life now."
By his own admission, Wiggins had a reputation as a party animal – gold medals in the individual and team pursuits at Beijing in 2008 were celebrated by his going on a bender that Oliver Reed would have been proud of – but with his 32nd birthday looming, he is aware he is running out of time to achieve his ambitions on the road.
"It's making the most of the time I've got and not wanting to look back in five years and wishing I'd done more,” he reflected. “This is my fourth Olympics but I've also realised I'm a bit of an exception. I do the road as well and the Tour comes first. I've got an opportunity that not many people have – to be the leader of Team Sky as I enter the prime years of my career. I have the potential to be up there in the Tour de France – not many people get to do that. And not many people get the chance to then compete at the Olympics a week later."
Talking of his early exit from last year’s Tour, Wiggins said: "I was remarkably philosophical. In hospital I cheered up everyone. It helped that I spoke to Bella [his five-year-old daughter] on the phone. She'd just come out of school and she said: 'Do you know Bradley Wiggins crashed out of the Tour today.' She doesn't associate me with the Brad Wiggins she sees on the telly. I said: 'Yeah, I saw that.'"
As he continued his recovery at home, he followed the conclusion of the race on TV. With Wiggins having beaten Cadel Evans earlier in the season to take what to date is his biggest win on the road, the Critérium du Dauphiné, it was a bittersweet experience, he admits.
"By the third week I was like a kid again. I loved it. There was only one moment when I felt disappointment. I saw one of the finishes and [Alberto] Contador had been dropped. The Schleck brothers were there, with Cadel, and I just thought: 'F*ck, I could've been there.'"
Turning to his podium place in the Vuelta, he said: "It was such a massive step forward for me, and Team Sky, but I've not dwelled on it as much as other past successes. It's just been a case of: 'Right, let's move on to the next challenge.'"
When asked if he can picture himself winning the Tour de France, Wiggins became pensive. "Um … yeah … winning it... It takes a lot to win the Tour de France. I certainly think I'm physically capable now – more than ever. I proved that last year. But it's as much about the process that goes into it in the eight months before the Tour as much as me saying: 'Yeah I can win it.' It's a way of life. A complete mentality and you need to buy into it a long way out. I've done that.
"It's just belief really. I believe in myself and the people around me. I just have to keep putting the work in, and I'll get the rewards. I just don't know what those rewards are yet."
Within a week of the Tour finishing in Paris, Wiggins will be one of four Great Britain riders - most if not all of whom will be drawn from Team Sky itself - helping Cavendish in his bid to win the first gold medal of London 2012, followed four days later by the time trial.
Should his Tour de France go to plan, Wiggins maintains that he knows what to do to keep focused for the Olympics.
"The main thing will be to get out of that bubble of the Tour as quickly as possible. If you come out of the Tour with a result you're going to be in demand for days – and it will be important to avoid that demand until after the Olympics. That's going to be difficult from the team's perspective because it could be the biggest thing ever for us. But I'll leave it to Dave. The ideal scenario would be to go home as soon as possible. And a few days later you drive down the M6 to the Olympics."
After Cavendish’s world championship win, the Manxman did the rounds of morning TV, fending off questions such as whether he rode his bike to the shops, and why, if he was so good, he hadn’t won the yellow jersey in the Tour.
Should Wiggins do just that, he’s unlikely to go that route. "After the Tour you don't want to be sat on Daybreak the next morning with Adrian Chiles, or whoever, when you've got the Olympics five days later," he commented.
Wiggins believes that his strongest competition for time trial gold will come from the man who beat him at Copenhagen, Germany’s Tony Martin, rather than four-time World Champion Fabian Cancellara, who defends his title in London.
"He's the best by a long way right now," he says of Martin. "Tony's not chasing anything on the road like I am. The beauty for him is that he rode the Tour of Spain just before the worlds and where I poured everything of myself into a brutal race, he could sit up and save himself. I don't have that beauty. But that's the challenge – for me to do both. So to actually beat Tony in London and win the time trial would be huge, especially after the Tour."
While some critics have questioned whether Team Sky can perform to the best of their abilities with both Wiggins and Cavendish chasing separate goals in the Tour, the man who until now has been its undisputed leader insists they can complement each other.
"It would be easy to take the negatives of Cav coming into this team and think: 'Ah, well, they might bring in a few riders that suit him more than me,'” he said.
“But me and Cav have such a strong bond and there are so many positives to take from him joining us. We can really profit from each other. Some of the leadership skills he brings to the team, and the way he dictates when we're on the road, will take a lot of pressure off me. It's going to be exciting. And we could be invincible this year as a team."
However, former Tour de France winner Stephen Roche has cast doubt on Team Sky’s ability to conduct a successful campaign for both the green and yellow jerseys.
The Irishman, who could well have two family members to follow in July’s race with not only his son Nicolas of AG2R but also his nephew, Garmin-Barracuda’s Dan Martin, likely to race, points to Chris Froome as the Team Sky rider best suited to achieve its stated aim of producing a British overall winner.
Roche confessed he was sceptical of that goal when the team was launched in January 2010, telling the Daily Telegraph in an interview published today.
"Initially I felt that that that was just a commercial pitch because a Tour winner doesn't just come along like that,” said Roche, who in his annus mirabilis of 1987 also won the Giro d’Italia and World Championship.
“So who's Brailsford got in his pocket capable of winning the Tour? Wiggins?
"Well maybe now, but not at the time. But now we look at it differently. I think Brailsford was very courageous to come out and announce that.
"For me, though, I think Froome is the one: he's got a great attitude, great ability, he time-trials well, climbs well and recuperates very well and can last the three weeks.
"Ok, Bradley's there, but he's now targeted,” Roche added. “People know Bradley, whereas Froome could benefit from the limelight being on Bradley and Cavendish.
He continued: "They might, though, lose everything by targeting both. It will be very difficult for them.”
While Wiggins is a certainty to lead Team Sky in the Tour, for now it is unclear whether Froome, who finished one place ahead of him in second place in last year’s Vuelta – many insist he would have won had team orders been different – will participate, although the Kenya-born rider has himself said he wants a place in the line-up.
Roche went on to explain that a change in Tour de France rules this year meant that Cavendish, who in the 2009 Tour saw his green jersey hopes slip away after being relegated to last place on a stage when he was adjudged to have cut up eventual points winner Thor Hushovd during a sprint finish, would need to maintain his discipline more than ever this summer.
Stage 3 of last year’s race also saw Cavendish as well as Hushovd relegated from the points at an intermediate sprint after “serious misconduct,” benefiting the man who would eventually finish second to the Manxman in the points classification, Movistar’s Jose Joaquin Rojas.
"Cavendish has a habit of getting himself docked points from his conduct and in this year's Tour any misconduct will be severely punished so if he realistically wants to win the green jersey he will have to be careful,” explained Roche.
"He, or anyone else, could lose up to 60 points following a rule change.
"They are trying to work with a system now where if someone does make a mistake [and are adjudged to have broken racing rules by the race jury] then they are severely docked.
"So, if Cavendish wins a couple of stages and then doesn't end up winning the overall [in the points classification] it may jeopardise the yellow jersey.
"The biggest problem I see is the management,” Roche went on. “They've got a headache. How are they going to co-ordinate the sprints for Cavendish so that he's happy he has a good lead-out?
“How are they going to cope with Froome and Wiggins when they can't ride in the lead-out for Cavendish?
"Then Cavendish's lead-out man can't ride for them. It's going to be a nightmare for the management, I wouldn't like to be them at all," he concluded.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.