I haven’t been writing regularly about the Tour de France this season. If you want the full, daily scoop with expert analysis see Matt Gilchrist’s Weblog on my Blogroll. But I do have a few reflections as the Tour hits a couple of indolent days of more or less flat stage riding between the Alps and the Pyrénées.
First, I will now agree with Matt that Brad Wiggins is very likely to win the tour. He has a 2:05 minute time gap over the second place rider, Chris Froome, who is another member of his own team. His time over the third rider, Vincenzo Nibali, is 2:23. Last year’s champion, Cadel Evans, is at 3:19. Wiggins got through the Alps in good shape, and has an ally, not a rival, in Froome. His team, Sky Procycling, has winning the Tour’s General Classification as its goal, and it’s the strongest team in terms of having members who are powerful riders, able to support the team leader effectively.
The fly in the ointment is that Wiggins is a pure time trialist. He can (barely) keep up with the other top riders on the hardest mountain climbs. But he masters rivals in the time trials. Riders who can both dominate the time trials and climb to mountain stage victories win the Tour. Americans Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong are two examples. Some riders who do it Wiggins’ way have also been champions, notably Miguel Indurain, who won five straight Tours from 1991 through 1995. Indurain, however, was a little stronger than Wiggins has so far shown in both the mountains and the race against the clock. In fact, Wiggins has never won a Tour stage before this year, and his one victory this year was in the first long time trial. There is one more, even longer, such stage on the next to last day of the Tour.
There are only two mountain stages next week during which Wiggins could conceivably lose two or three minutes to key rivals, and they’d need to get more like four or five to be able to hold him off in the time trial. So the prospect seems unlikely. It’s especially so when you look at the rivals. Cadel Evans’ attack on Thursday, designed to gain him serious time against Wiggins, ended with him instead cracking and losing almost 1:30 to the yellow jersey. He couldn’t sustain the attack, which he started early out of perceived necessity. Wiggins’ Sky team simply rode hard and patiently to overtake Evans, whose own BMC team lacked the strength to organize and hold off Sky. A couple more attacks like that and he’ll be out of the top ten. Nibali, the next most likely challenger, also attacked, and looked like he might gain at least 30 or 40 seconds on the last climb, but again he could not sustain his advantage and ended up with the same time as Wiggins. Wiggins, however, has shown enough vulnerability in the mountains for me to be convinced that if Alberto Contador and/or Andy Schleck were in the race and on form, Wiggins would be dead meat.
One way Wiggo could be dead meat this year would be if his teammate Chris Fromme were allowed to ride for himself instead of being a super domestique. Yesterday with about 4 km to go on a steep uphill finish, Fromme, riding just ahead of Wiggins, put in a vicious attack to escort Wiggins forward. That would have given him additional time over all his rivals. None of the rivals could answer the attack, and soon Fromme had a big gap. Trouble is, Wiggins could not answer it either. But the team car, seeing the situation, immediately instructed Fromme to back off and wait for Wiggins. The episode unintentionally revealed who had the biggest engine, and it was not the team leader. This situation is reminiscent of other Tours, especially 1996 when Deutsche Telecom leader Bjarne Riis seemed less powerful than youngster Jan Ullrich, who rode in his support and finished second in the Tour overall. Also there was 1990, when Banesto’s team leader was Pedro Delgado. Riding in his support was the young Miguel Indurain, who had to hold back at some key points to escort his team leader. Greg Lemond won this Tour, but the thinking is that Idurain might have challenged him if he had been riding on his own. A similar issue may be brewing this year on BMC, with the failing Cadel Evans as team leader, and the rising young American Tejay Van Garderen as the stronger support rider.
If Wiggins does become the 2012 Tour de France winner, he’d better learn to behave like a champion. So far his demeanor with the media and his fellow riders has been that of a crude, arrogant lout. He has used foul language, walked out of press conferences, gestured rudely to rivals at the end of stages, and generally created an unprecedentedly vulgar tone at the Tour. This race has a century-old tradition of collegiality and respect. Riders don’t attack one another during on-cycle bathroom breaks, they don’t take advantage of mechanical failures or accidents by chief rivals, they do not use foul language in interviews. When these codes are broken, it is cause for comment. So far Wiggins has dishonored the Yellow Jersey with his behavior.
RadioShack-Nissan-Trek, who lost their team leader Andy Schleck to a broken pelvis before the race began, has the majority of their team (5 of 9) in the top 20 riders right now. Problem is, they are a torso without a head. None of the five is a legitimate contender for the GC victory, so while they may win the Team Championship, they won’t have a rider on the podium in all likelihood. Andy’s brother Frank, also on the team, announced that he didn’t want to replace his brother as team leader, lest he be blamed if he did not win. The heart of a runner-up. RadioShack Directeur Sportif Johan Bruyneel is not with the team because of the announced doping investigation by the USADA. And the team’s best participating rider, and wearer of the Yellow Jersey for the first seven stages of the race, Fabian “Spartacus” Cancellara, left the race yesterday to be with his wife as she delivered their second child. A “hard man” as a bike rider, and an honorable human being. What a mixed bag of successes, disappointments, and downright sourness this team has produced this year.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.