The Tour of California has proven an unmitigated success for the cream of British talent.
Sir Bradley Wiggins claimed overall victory after winning stage two, Mark Cavendish bookended his campaign with victories on the opening and closing stages, and Adam Yates continued a hugely impressive neo pro season by finishing fifth overall.
The performances offer an interesting departure point for a discussion on what is fast becoming the business end of the season. With a little less than seven weeks until the Yorkshire Grand Départ of the Tour de France, the two men who have defined British cycle sport for a generation appear to be engaged upon a perfect form building exercise as the world’s greatest bike race prepares to hit our shores.
What a Tour we have in prospect. Contador has a first victory at Tirreno-Adriatico and a third Pais Vasco title. Froome has successfully defended his titles in Oman and Romandie. And now Wiggins has sealed victory in California
What next for Bradley Wiggins now he’s back in form? The Londoner’s victory at the Tour of California is arguably his most impressive performance since his last impressive performance, when he rode to a top 10 finish at Paris-Roubaix. Wiggins’ triumph on the West Coast is all the more impressive for his fulfillment of a stated aim. Sky’s maverick genius, as we have previously observed, is seemingly a captive of mood, but when the stars align, there are few who can touch him.
Equally revealing of his current state of mind were his post-ride comments. Asked if he would now ride the Tour de France, Wiggins mischievously told the reporter that he would find himself in trouble by answering the question. While the official line from the British team’s management is that Wiggins is on the long list for Tour selection and nothing further has been decided, the Londoner has surely booked himself a place on the start line in Yorkshire.
Froome will have noted Wiggins’ return to form, but it is unlikely to cause him sleepless nights. He knows he will have the measure of his team-mate in the mountains. Of far greater concern will be the return to form of Alberto Contador
What might he achieve in the French race? The cobbled stage five, from Ypres to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, will surely appeal after his impressive showing in the Queen of the Classics. And with a 54km time trial planned for the penultimate stage, a fixture redolent of his title-clinching engagement at the 2012 Tour, Wiggins must again fancy the job. All this and the opening three stages on home soil.
The snag, as it has been for Wiggins almost since Team Sky’s inception, will be the presence of Chris Froome. The defending champion will have noted Wiggins’ return to form, but it is unlikely to cause him too many sleepless nights. He knows he will have the measure of his team-mate in the mountains. Of far greater concern to Froome will be the return to form of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), who has shown that, at his best, he can match Froome on the steepest gradients, acceleration for acceleration – a weapon notably absent from the British knight’s arsenal.
What a Tour we have in prospect if this trio maintain their current progress. Contador has added a first victory at Tirreno-Adriatico to his palmares and a third Pais Vasco title. Froome has successfully defended his titles at the Tour of Oman and the Tour de Romandie. And now Wiggins has sealed victory at the Tour of California. With Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde also resurgent and Vicenzo Nibali (Astana) offering glimpses of his best form at Milan-San Remo and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Grande Boucle looks set to be a battle royale. And before that, the Criterium du Dauphine.
Cavendish: hard, fast, and ready for Kittel…and Degenkolb too?
The second enthralling sub-plot to events in California was the battle among the sprinters, a contest won by Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quickstep). Most impressive was the British champion’s ride back into contention on the final stage: a tough, undulating course on which Cavendish himself said he hadn’t expected to finish.
His team-mates combined with an efficiency that proved beyond them on stage four when, for once, the breakaway survived, to haul Cavendish into contention where he finished the job by the narrowest margin, almost forced to curtail his celebrations by the on-rushing John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano).
The Manx Missile, by his own admission, may not be getting faster, but he certainly appears to be getting harder: a scale on which he started from a high baseline
The charge of the latter pulls us further into delicious speculation about the July fixture. While the talk of the Tour, in the context of sprinters, is confined solely to Cavendish vs. Kittel in Harrogate, Giant-Shimano may well roll up with the ultimate two-pronged attack, should they bring Degenkolb to the Tour as well. If stage one has Kittel’s name penciled on it, stage two might suit his team-mate.
Degenkolb has come of age this season, with his victory at Gent-Wevelgem the most impressive of his career to date. Perhaps unwittingly forced into developing his own role at Giant-Shimano by the speed of Kittel, Degenkolb is rapidly becoming a fast finishing all-rounder. Similarly, Cavendish’s performance on his final engagement in California, where he groveled his way over short, steep climbs before descending back into contention, called to mind his performance at Milan-San Remo. The Manx Missile, by his own admission, is not getting any faster, but he certainly appears to be getting harder – a scale on which he started from a high base.
After two sensational summers for British cycle sport, packed with moments previously considered untouchable (Wiggins in Chartres and at Hampton Court; Froome on the Ventoux and the Élysées), the landscape of just over a month’s time is looking increasingly welcoming, and not only thanks to the Yorkshire tourist board.