Team Sky more than played its part in making 2012 a landmark year for British cycle sport.
Bradley Wiggins’ historic victory in the Tour de France was, along with Team GB’s domination of cycling events in the Olympic Games, the peak of Britain’s so-called “golden summer”.
In our feature series this month, ‘Follow that! How 2013 can top 2012’, Team Sky clearly plays an important role. Having achieved so much last year, the only way to top its achievements of 2012 is to produce more and greater victories in 2013.
Such ambitions are more than wishful thinking from the British team’s core of home nation supporters. In the publicly stated ambitions of both Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, who will be targeting victory at the Tour de France, and, in Wiggins’ case, the Giro d’Italia as well, they occupy a position at the top of Team Sky’s ‘to do’ list for the season ahead.
Immediately after securing first and second place with Wiggins and Froome at last year’s Tour, as well as six stage wins courtesy of the aforesaid pair and Mark Cavendish, team principal, Dave Brailsford, spoke of making Team Sky “the best professional team this sport has ever seen.” One certain way to achieve that would be to win two Grand Tours in a single season.
But is this possible, even for Team Sky? The first hurdle to be cleared would be victory at the Giro d’Italia, a race of no lesser physical challenge than the Tour, but perhaps more suited to Wiggins’ abilities than this year’s Grande Boucle.
The 2013 Corsa Rosa will include three tests against the clock, beginning on stage two with a 17.4km team time trial. A rolling, 55km individual time trial from Gabicce Mare to Saltara on stage eight looks tailor-made for Wiggins.
The final time trial, on stage 18, couldn’t be more different: a course that climbs relentlessly, at an average gradient of 5.2 per cent, from 197 metres at Mori to 1,205 metres some 19.45km later at the finish in Polsa.With victory against the clock on the Col d’Eze already on his CV, however, this will not unduly concern the Londoner.
Wiggins will be one of the few contenders to ride both the Giro and the Tour. Alberto Contador (Team Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank), the pre-Tour favourite even before he has declared his schedule for 2013, is highly unlikely to roll out in Napoli on Saturday May 4 for the Giro’s Grand Partenza.
He need only cast his mind back as far as 2011 to recall the debilitating effects of a Giro victory on ambitions for the same at the Tour. Despite his trademark aggression and relentless attacks in the mountains, El Pistolero was unable to make a significant impact on the Tour after dominating the Giro to win by more than six minutes (Contador was stripped of his Giro crown after testing positive for Clenbuterol in a sample given on the second rest day of the 2010 Tour: another race in which he which he was subsequently stripped of victory).
Contador’s experience places two elements in Wiggins’ favour: the first is that he is unlikely to face the Spaniard in Italy; the second is that the 2013 Giro is not as hard as the 2011 edition, the last in which Angelo Zomegnan served as race director. His successor, Michele Acquarone, an intelligent man with ambitions to turn the Giro into a global brand, delivered a route last year described by no less an authority than Contador himself as “more humane”. The 2013 edition continues the trend for a mix of signature climbs and efforts against the clock and is described by Acquarone as “balanced”.
What could count against Wiggins, however, and Froome, and Team Sky, is the need to provide the Londoner with a team as strong as that which rode in his support at the Tour last year. This is, of itself, no great concern. Mick Rogers, now, ironically, a member of Contador’s Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank squad, will certainly be missed, but Team Sky has sufficient strength in depth to replace the Australian. The concern must be, does it have sufficient strength in depth to provide two squads of sufficient talent? Or one squad with sufficient resilience to ride for victory at two Grand Tours just five weeks apart?
This concern lies at the heart of any analysis of Team Sky’s second goal for 2013: a second consecutive victory at the Tour de France.
The first issue the team must resolve is the question of leadership. Publicly, they have supported the ambitions of both riders, much as they did last year with the twin goals of green jerseys for Cavendish and yellow for Wiggins. Having given both riders equal opportunity to stake their claim to leadership in the build up to the Tour, Brailsford and the team’s senior management assessed Wiggins’ superb season and rightly judged that the greater prize was within their grasp.
Should Wiggins win the Giro, they are likely to do so again. Even if Froome were to repeat Wiggins’ early-season successes of 2012, given the choice of backing a rider with victories in a series of week-long stage races or a newly-crowned Giro champion, they are likely to back the Londoner. Should Wiggins line up in Corsica as the winner of two Grand Tours, as well as defending champion, few will question his right to lead the team.
The reverse is true. A Wiggins defeated at the Giro, and likely to have been exhausted by the attempt, will appear a worse bet than Froome, particularly if Froome has, like Wiggins did last year, achieved some of the best results of his career in the meantime. Additionally, the consensus of opinion is that the 2013 Tour, the centenary edition, is better suited to Froome’s superior climbing abilities.
And then there is Contador. The Spaniard will haunt Team Sky’s plans for this season like Banquo’s ghost. Contador trounced Froome at the 2012 Vuelta, a race he went on to win, but, unlike the Spaniard, Froome had a Tour and two Olympic events in his legs, and made no specific preparation for Spain’s national tour.
Will things be different given equal preparation? Contador’s achievements far outstrip those of Froome, and he is at least as good against the clock. Froome, however, proved himself able to match the Spaniard in the first week of the Vuelta. Given the form that saw him devour the closing kilometres of the Peyragudes in pursuit of Alejandro Valverde on stage 17 of the 2012 Tour, only to be called back to pace Wiggins, it’s possible Froome can match Contador for three weeks.
There is a sense that Froome has waited his turn: that having seen his victory in the 2011 Vuelta squandered by Team Sky’s insistence on backing Wiggins, and being arguably the stronger of the pair in the mountains of last year’s Tour, that he has earned the right to lead the team this July. Sentiment, however, must not cloud Team Sky’s judgment. The reality is that the nature of this year’s parcourse, and the threat of Contador, makes his role as super domestique more vital than ever.
Reversing their roles would be entirely self defeating. Wiggins is incapable of responding to Contador’s sudden accelerations in the mountains, and Froome cannot take significant time from the Spaniard in time trials. Froome as attack dog, relentlessly chasing down Contador in the mountains as Team Sky work to keep Wiggins at a consistently high tempo and in contention, before allowing the Londoner to inflict damage on Contador by showing himself – again – the world’s best time trialist, must be the British team’s best hope of a second consecutive Tour de France victory.
Will it follow triumph in the Giro? Everything will depend on Wiggins’ ability to replicate the determination of 2012. Having achieved so much, and been to the well so often in 2012, will he have the motivation or physical resources for an even bigger challenge in 2013?
My feeling is yes. Wiggins’ maturity is a driving force greater than unrealised ambition. Clearly aware that he is in the closing stages of his career, determined not to squander his last remaining years at the top, and able to call on all the experience of a glittering career, he holds a unique combination of desire and experience. With the backing of the team, and the correct deployment of Froome, two Grand Tour victories are within Team Sky’s grasp in 2013.
Follow that? The Tour comes to Britain in 2014.