If 2012 was a memorable year for British cycling fans, there was one event above all others that made it so.
After a season-long form-building exercise that brought victory in some of cycling’s most prestigious races, Bradley Wiggins rolled from the start house in Liege to start his assault on the biggest race in cycling: the Tour de France.
His three-week campaign was a masterclass in controlled racing, the management of effort as well as of his rivals, and a showcase for his considerable array of talents, time trialist, climber, and lead out man among them.
Much of the drama was to be found beyond the yellow jersey, specifically in the tireless efforts of Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) who made good on his pre-race vow to take the fight to Wiggins at every opportunity, and in Cadel Evans’ courageous, but ultimately doomed attempt to defend his title.
The Australian, who went on the offensive as early as stage one, suffered as the race wore on, and enduring the final indignity of being passed by his young teammate, Tejay Van Gaarderen, in the stage nineteen time trial from Bonneval to Chartres that would seal the passing of his crown to Wiggins.
Mark Cavendish (Team Sky) left the Tour with three stage wins and a resolution to leave the team after a tough race that by the standards of any other rider (Greipel and Sagan, for example, were both left jubilant by their hat-tricks) would have been considered a resounding success.
History will perhaps not judge Cavendish as harshly as he judges himself. Two of his three stage victories resulted largely from his own efforts; the second, on stage eighteen, resulting from one of the most blistering displays ever witnessed (Cavendish caught the day’s breakaway within sight of the line and simply sprinted past them).
His third victory, however, was achieved with a lead out from the entire team, Wiggins included. British cycling may never again witness a sight as glorious as a British Tour de France champion elect, resplendent in yellow jersey, leading out a British world road race champion on the Champs Elysees for what with hindsight seems like an inevitable victory.
Some observers, wrongly in the opinion of this correspondent, had criticised Cavendish’s bottle carrying duties in the mountains as degrading to the rainbow jersey, but it was only a very visible manifestation of the team work the Manx Missile is so diligent to praise in victory. When the time came for Team Sky to repay the favour, they did so in spades, supplying the lead out train to end all lead out trains. Cavendish, inevitably, kept his side of the bargain with a fourth consecutive victory on the Champs Elysees.
Other highlights from La Grande Boucle? More heroic performances from Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), Sagan maintaining a season of dominance on cycling’s biggest stage, a gritty seven days in the yellow jersey from Cancellara on his return from injury, who abandoned the race to be with his pregnant wife and Chris Froome bringing further joy to Team Sky by finishing second overall and bagging a win on stage seven, the least his talents deserved.
Next year will be different, with both Froome and Wiggins declaring an intention to target the Tour, and Cavendish departed for Omega Pharma-QuickStep. But British fans were left with a July to remember, and found themselves looking forwards to August, and a home Olympic Games, with more than justifiable expectations of further success.