Bradley Wiggins’ victory in the 2012 Tour de France has the potential to change this nation’s attitude to cycling forever.
Team Sky have given the man and woman on the street new heroes; heroes who win. After another inept performance at a major football tournament, and Andy Murray’s valiant but ultimately failed attempt to win Wimbledon, the British sporting summer has been saved, again, by the nation’s elite cyclists.
The control with which Team Sky achieved overall victory for Wiggins and six stage wins, among them three victories for Cavendish, including a record-breaking fourth consecutive win on the Champs-Élysées, was truly impressive. Defeat for Cavendish in Paris would have left a sour taste even for a team celebrating first and second on GC, such are the standards at Britain’s only WorldTour team.
Many observers, this correspondent included, wondered how they could contend for the yellow jersey with Wiggins while riding for green with Cavendish. In the end, they chose not to. Team principal, Dave Brailsford, told RCUK in April that the team would bias its efforts in response to form and results. While both men arrived in excellent form, Cavendish having scored three stage wins and come within two stages of winning the points jersey at the Giro d’Italia, and Wiggins having won Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie, and the Criterium du Dauphine, faced with an opportunity for overall victory rather than the points competition, Brailsford’s decision to pursue the GC prize must have been a simple one.
Hares have been set running by what has been interpreted as Cavendish being released if he demands a dedicated effort in support of stage wins and a green jersey campaign at next year’s Tour. My belief is that Brailsford has no intention of losing Cavendish and was simply answering a question from a media starved of controversy in the face of a dominant and united team performance. Team Sky are far more likely to contest both competitions next year than to lose a British world road race champion and one of the finest sprinters ever. A two-pronged assault would also accord with Brailsford’s assertion that they will remain a GC team.
They proved their ability to do so on stages 18 and 20 when Wiggins became Cavendish’s lead out man. The sight of the yellow jersey leading out the world road race champion on the Champs Élysées was surely another first. Not for Wiggins the statesman-like entry to the capital of the conquering general, who, having won all the major battles, allows his foot soldiers to settle the minor skirmishes. Instead, the Londoner lined up for duty, and helped to launch Cavendish to victory. Next year will not offer the significant distraction of an Olympic campaign, and for a group continually seeking new heights (Brailsford is already talking of becoming ‘the best cycling team the world has ever seen’) a successful green and yellow jersey campaign offers one of the few ways to top first and second on GC.
Cavendish can reflect on a successful Tour. By the standards of other sprinters, (Greipel and Sagan, who both collected three stage wins) a hat-trick at the Tour represents a career high, while for Cavendish it is less than his tally in each of the two previous editions. But he can draw satisfaction from the knowledge that his first on stage two came entirely from his own efforts, and that his victories on stage 18 and 20 followed the efforts of a train equal to that provided by his former employers, the remnants of which, now scattered across the peloton, do as much to prove their status as lead out men by losing to Cavendish as they did by riding for him. Perhaps Chris Froome, apparently chafing at his role as super domestique to Wiggins, should be careful what he wishes for. One wonders how much Mark Renshaw now relishes the role of sprint leader at Rabobank. Cavendish speaks fondly of his friend and former teammate, and by recruiting the Australian, Sky could run a formidable sprint train of Cavendish, Eisel, Renshaw and Boasson Hagen among a team still capable of contesting overall victory with Wiggins, supported by Froome, Rigoberto Uran, Richie Porte, and Michael Rogers.
Wiggins’ victory in Olympic year offers the chance of further prizes (yesterday’s effort on the Champs-Élysées may prove to be a dress rehearsal for the Mall on Saturday; a 57-second victory over Cancellara in the Tour’s stage nine time trial suggests the Olympic title is not beyond him) but it seems a shame he has missed out on a victory parade by being flown directly to an Olympic holding camp. If his first public celebration on home soil occurs on the Mall, the sacrifice will have been worth it.