What next for Sir Bradley Wiggins?
His appearance yesterday at Buckingham Palace to be invested with the knighthood announced in the New Year honours list sparked a flashback to happier times: the all-conquering Tour de France and Olympic champion with sights set firmly on the year ahead and a second Grand Tour victory.
What a difference (less than) a year makes. A disappointing Giro d’Italia and omission from the Tour de France squad in a combination of illness and injury that must have come as a relief to all at Team Sky given his intransigence towards support for Chris Froome, has put Wiggins in the shade this year.
The flame that seemed rekindled by victory at the Tour of Britain was extinguished as quickly by the rains of Tuscany where, once again finding himself on steep and wet Italian roads, Wiggins soon disappeared from view; returned at the world road race championships to territory he’d perhaps thought he’d left behind in May.
So what next for Britain’s greatest cyclist, a man whose incredible Olympic success, on track and road, whose transformation from pursuit king to Grand Tour champion ranks among the greatest accomplishments in the history of the sport?
A motivated Wiggins remains among the finest riders in the peloton, but finding a challenge to reignite his will to win could be as problematic in 2014 as it has been this year. Rewind 12 months and the talk was of the Giro in 2013. A year later, it has been replaced by talk of Rio 2016. But if targeting a second Grand Tour victory failed to whet an appetite satiated by victory in the greatest of all road races, it’s difficult to imagine a man with four gold medals in his pocket sacrificing everything for two years in pursuit of a fifth.
To describe Wiggins as versatile barely does justice to the breadth of his talent. Is victory in a Monument Classic beyond him? We have seen Wiggins the track star, the stage racer (his victories in cycling’s prestigious week-long races are too easily overlooked), the time trialist, and the Grand Tour champion, but Wiggins the Classics rider would be something new, for the cycling public – and, crucially – for Wiggins.
He has an engine to match Cancellara’s, but it’s hard to picture an artist like Wiggins, serene in his best form, prospering amid the muck and bullets of the Ronde or Roubaix. His rival for the 2012 Tour, Vincenzo Nibali, has shown what a Grand Tour rider might do at Milan-San Remo, but where the descent of the Poggio plays to Nibali’s descending strengths, it could unseat Wiggins. The Ardennes would seem to offer the greatest opportunity. Roman Kreuziger won Amstel this year with a long-range attack, and Wiggins would surely need a similar strategy in Limburg or at Fleche, or risk dueling with Rodriguez and his ilk on the Cauberg or the Muur de Huy.
Liege would surely suit him best. A scholar of cycling’s history, victory at La Doyenne would surely inspire Wiggins. Remember his victory on the opening stage of last year’s Tour de Romandie? The Londoner, unable to keep from winning during his best season, simply rode away from a rampaging peloton.
Will we see Wiggins return to his pomp in 2014? The sight of the Londoner in full cry would represent a happy new year for all fans of British cycle sport.