Richard Browne looks back on le Tour de France 2012, or Britain’s conquest of France.
There is an ‘I’ in team, and that ‘I’ is Bradley Wiggins.
While Peter Sagan obliterated the sprinters’ classification, Thomas Voeckler did his bit for French pride as worthy winner of the polka-dot (King of the Mountains) jersey and Tejay Van Garderen announced himself as a future contender for overall victory as he won the white jersey for best young rider (yes, it has been a busy three weeks), Bradley Wiggins made this his Tour.
The Englishman was utterly dominant. He was at his peerless best in the longer time-trials (Stages 9 and 19), not only winning both but also putting minutes and minutes into his main rivals.
Yet he was also excellent on the other stages, staying out of trouble (i.e. crashes) in a chaotic first week and keeping pace with the best climbers in the mountains. Even when the going got toughest and the other big names cracked, Wiggins never, ever looked like letting go of the yellow jersey he wore from Stage 8 to Paris. In the end he won by over 3 minutes, with the closest non-Sky rider, Vincenzo Nibali, over six minutes back.
And then we had Wiggins as ‘le Gentleman’. His leadership of the peloton – notably on Stage 14, where some saboteurs’ tacks punctured the peloton’s chase of the day’s breakaway and Wiggins slowed the bunch down to let several of his rivals (Cadel Evans in particular) catch up – was exemplary, even earning praise from the French press. It was just like the days of Lance Armstrong governing the peloton. More on him later.
Yet, lest we forget, le Tour is a team game and Wiggins will be grateful for a brilliant performance from Team Sky, who gave him the necessary platform to win. RadioShack-Nissan may have won the official team classification, but there was no doubting which team had this race by the collar throughout.
Wiggins won the yellow jersey, Chris Froome was second and Mark Cavendish won three stages, including his fourth straight victory on the Champs-Elysees. But Sky had even greater strength in depth than that. Richie Porte, Michael Rogers and Edvald Boasson-Hagen were immense, working tirelessly for Wiggins and – in doing so – decimating the field with their furious pace-making on those long climbs.
And when they’d helped Wiggins win the race overall? They put their all into making sure Mark Cavendish got some more stage wins to add to his ever-expanding collection. He now has 23 of those in cycling’s most famous event, thanks to his raw power in the sprints once his team had dropped him off within launching range.
With Wiggins, Froome and Cavendish all picking up stage wins and Wiggins the main prize, we might ask how this Sky team and Wiggins as an individual champion compare to those of previous years.
I began following cycling in 2005, which saw the last of Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour wins. Thus I did not really see him at his peak. But I think it is fair to say that no one has dominated le Tour like the Texan did… until this year.
Alberto Contador was good, very good, in 2007 and 2009, but he was not as thoroughly dominant as Wiggins in the last few weeks. The same applies to Cadel Evans in 2011 – he was a worthy winner, but he needed the time trial on the penultimate stage to snatch yellow away from Andy Schleck.
Armstrong also had a superb team behind him, US Postal (1996-2004), although even they seldom stamped their authority on the race like Sky have here. Add to that the (assumed) non-existent links between Sky and doping – as opposed to Armstrong, Contador and some of their teammates – and we may have just seen the team performance of le Tour.
It may not last: unless Froome gets his way and is team leader next year, he may choose to leave, while Mark Cavendish could also be on the lookout for a team dedicated to delivering him stage wins rather than supporting a general classification contender.
Whatever happens, Wiggins, Froome and Cavendish this year have been part of a very special sporting feat. British cycling, and British sport, will not need much more inspiration in terms of preparing for the Olympic Games. The story may not be over yet.