Wiggins in wonderland

Cycling:With a strong and measured performance, the rider became the first Briton to win the Tour de France

Wiggins in wonderland

It was an occasion to smile, but Bradley Wiggins walked through a hotel lobby in Toulouse, France, with pursed lips and steely eyes.

Though the final mountain stage of the Tour de France had ended -- and Wiggins, with a substantial lead on his closest rival, Vincenzo Nibali, was in all likelihood the race winner -- he was not ready to let his guard down.

On Sunday, he could finally drop the businesslike facade. Before riding into Paris as the first British champion of the Tour de France, Wiggins sat on his bike at the start in Rambouillet, southwest of Paris, joking with other riders. It was the culmination of a strong and measured performance in this grueling three-week, 2,173-mile race, which began on June 30 in Liege, Belgium.

Wiggins, 32, controlled the Tour from the end of the first week on with the help of his team-mates on the talented Team Sky squad, most notably the fellow Briton Christopher Froome, a Kenyan-born 27-year-old who finished second overall.

Froome, along with third-place Vincenzo Nibali, an Italian with Liquigas-Cannondale, also stood atop the podium on the Champs-Elysees Sunday. But it was Wiggins who was the most elated.

“Going back as a child, watching the Tour on telly from the age of 10, 11, 12, all through the Indurain years, dreaming that one day you would win the Tour,” he said at a news conference. “But you never really think it’s possible. What chance does a kid growing up in central London ever have to win the Tour?”

Since 1986, when the American Greg LeMond became the first rider from an English-speaking country to win the Tour, there have been others -- including Lance Armstrong and the Australian Cadel Evans of BMC Racing, who fell short of defending his title this year.

While Britain has dominated in track cycling, the discipline in which Wiggins started his racing career and won multiple Olympic medals, it has historically struggled on the road, particularly at the Tour.

The first British rider to wear the yellow jersey was Tom Simpson, who died while climbing Mont Ventoux during a stage of the 1967 Tour.

Though Barry Hoban and Robert Millar found success in the 1970s and ’80s, respectively, the sport was hardly popular among Britons -- or any other English speakers.

“My first Tour in ’84, not one person from start to finish cheered for me,” said Allan Peiper, an Australian who rode with Millar and is now a sport director for Garmin-Sharp. “The Tour was not like it is now. We were a band of 10 foreigners riding in a mostly European or French race.”

The Tour’s popularity has steadily increased across the Channel since. The Union Jack was a staple along the racecourse this year, from the narrow, windy roads of Belgium to the hot and sunny Pyrenees. But the flags would likely not be there, nor would Wiggins be Tour champion, without the support of Team Sky, a British squad founded in 2009 by Dave Brailsford, also the performance director of Britain’s national cycling team.

Wiggins was recruited to Sky from Team Garmin-Slipstream after a fourth-place Tour finish in 2009 -- matching Robert Millar, who finished fourth in 1984, for the best-ever finish by a Briton to that point. Despite the prerace hype that Wiggins would win that Tour, he finished a disappointing 23rd overall.

After dedicating himself to a rigorous training regime in 2011, with the help of Tim Kerrison, the former coach of the Australian national swimming team, Wiggins returned to the Tour determined to succeed. But in the seventh stage, he crashed, breaking a collarbone, and was left watching Evans win the title on television.

Everything finally came together this year. Wiggins won three major stage races this spring, becoming the third rider to capture both Paris-Nice and the Criterium du Dauphine in the same year. (Like Wiggins, the other two – cycling legends Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx -- also went on to win the Tour in July.)

In those victories, he combined methodical mountain rides with explosive time trial performances -- a formula that he and Team Sky replicated this Tour, grinding away rivals like Evans, Nibali and the Belgian Jurgen Van Den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol throughout the three weeks.

With three time trials totaling about 60 miles, this year’s course was considered to be less advantageous for climbers than in previous races.

Indeed, Wiggins -- whose specialty is the time trial -- padded his advantage by winning the two lengthy individual races against the clock, including the final time trial Saturday in Chartres. But the mountains remained crucial. With his team-mate Froome leading the way, Wiggins used the first mountain stage on July 7, which finished atop La Planche des Belles Filles, to take the yellow jersey from Fabian Cancellara, who had worn it since the race’s outset. Four days later, on Stage 11, he knocked Evans out of contention on the final climb to La Toussuire in the French Alps.

The BMC Racing captain, who had attacked earlier in the day, was unable to keep up with Froome and Wiggins as they sped up on the ascent. Evans was able to avoid total catastrophe, however, thanks to his 23-year-old US team-mate Tejay van Garderen, who helped pace him up the climb.

Van Garderen, from Bozeman, Mont., had a phenomenal showing in his second Tour, finishing fifth overall and winning the white jersey as the race’s highest-placed rider under 25. “It’s a nice little treat,” he said. “If you told me at the beginning of the Tour that I would get fifth place, I would have said you’re crazy.”

When the race visited the Pyrenees, which hosted the concluding mountain stages earlier this week, Vincenzo Nibali was the last remaining challenger. But even he was not strong enough to stay with Wiggins and Froome on Stage 17, the Tour’s last mountain test. As the duo steadily ascended to Peyragudes, a ski station near the France-Spain border, Nibali dropped back.

Toward the end of the climb, Froome showed that he had fresher legs than Wiggins, riding ahead of his team captain twice and gesturing for him to go faster. It was reminiscent of the scene on La Toussuire, when Froome had left Wiggins behind before being ordered back by team director Sean Yates. Though Froome, who finished second to Wiggins’ third in the Vuelta a Espana last autumn, said during the race that it was a “very, very great sacrifice” for him to not challenge Wiggins for the title, the tension did not undercut the team’s goal: keeping yellow all the way to Paris.

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