What Chris Froome, Brad Wiggins and their Sky teammates did on Saturday at the Tour de France was unprecedented. Nothing in the history of British cycling can compare with their double triumph: mountain stage win and polka-dot jersey for Froome, third place and yellow jersey for Wiggins, and confirmation that Sky is the strongest (and least damaged!) team in this 99th edition of the world’s greatest race. It’s still early days at this year’s race, but Wiggo’s men are already being compared with the monster French team of the 1980s, La Vie Claire, which saw Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond place first and second at the Tour in consecutive seasons.
Not even Great Britain’s near-sweep of the track gold medals at the 2008 Olympic Games can compare with what the two British riders (and their Australian lieutenants) achieved on the ugly new climb with the pretty name: La Planche des Belles Filles (the Beautiful Girls’ Plateau). In the past, only one Brit had won a Tour stage on any summit finish, and only one had pulled on the leader’s jersey at the end of a day in the mountains. So, for Froome and Wiggins to do this phenomenal double is simply unique.
It was 50 years and two days ago that Tom Simpson first put Britain on the Tour map by pulling on the maillot jaune at the end of the 1962 Tour’s stage 12 in the Pyrénées that crossed the Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde passes between Pau and St. Gaudens. Simpson ended that stage in a lead group of 22 riders and took the overall lead by 30 seconds over Dutchman Albertus Geldermans. But it was an unlucky stage 13 for Simpson. He wore the jersey for only one day, on an 18.5-kilometer uphill time trial from Luchon to Superbagnères, where he placed only 31st, 5:40 behind stage winner Federico Bahamontes, and dropped to fifth overall, two minutes behind new leader, Jo Planckaert of Belgium.
Simpson would never again wear the Tour’s yellow jersey, and he’s never improved on his his sixth-overall finish of 1962. Coincidentally, his last best ride came on stage 8 of the 1967 Tour, when he was fifth on the summit finish to the Ballon d’Alsace, which is only 10 kilometers from where Wiggins pulled on his yellow jersey at La Planche des Belles Filles. On that day 45 years ago, Simpson was in the lead group of five (the same number as in the lead group on Saturday at La Planche), a minute and a half ahead of race leader Roger Pingeon and 11 minutes clear of pre-race favorite Raymond Poulidor—who, incidentally never wore the yellow jersey despite finishing eight times on the Paris podium.
I was following the 1967 Tour by bike and after seeing Simpson place fifth in the rain on the Ballon d’Alsace, I rode down to Belfort and visited with the Great Britain team at dinner that night. There was an upbeat mood to the team, just as there with Team Sky in the same town this weekend, and Simpson said he believed that he still had a chance of winning the Tour. And that’s just what he was trying to do five days later, again on a stage 13, when he rode himself into oblivion on Mont Ventoux, collapsed just before the summit, and tragically died. One factor in Simpson’s death that’s not been mentioned much was the great heat on that day, approaching 100º Fahrenheit, weather that didn’t suit the Englishman. He performed much better in damp, cold conditions—as it was on the Ballon d’Alscace, and as they it as when he won the world road championship at San Sebastian, Spain, in 1965.
After Simpson, there was a long wait before Britain produced another Tour contender. That was Robert Millar, the pocket-built climber from Glasgow, Scotland, whose big breakthrough came at the 1983 Tour when he won the gigantic Pyrenean stage from Pau to Luchon (on the same course as this year’s peloton will race on stage 16). He had his best Tour the following year, when he won the polka-dot jersey as best climber, finished fourth overall (still the best by a Brit), and won another stage in the Pyrénées. This time it was a mountaintop finish at Guzet-Neige, where that Tour’s eventual winner, Laurent Fignon, placed only seventh, 2:13 down on Millar.
Millar had to wait five years for his next Tour stage win, and again it came at the top of a mountain. Appropriately, it was at Superbagnères, where Simpson had conceded his yellow jersey 27 years earlier. This time, Millar didn’t finish alone, he had to out-sprint the defending champion Pedro Delgado for the stage win, while that 1989 Tour’s eventual champion, LeMond, came home in ninth place, 3:38 back. But Millar, who never had the support he needed from his Peugeot team, never did reach the Tour podium, even though he placed second at both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España.
British fans have waited another quarter-century to see the phenomenon of not just one, but two Brits capable of winning the Tour. Wiggins has the jersey for now, but the way in which Froome won Saturday’s stage with a sharp acceleration to overtake defending champ Cadel Evans on a final ramp topping out at 28-percent grade, after he’d been setting the pace for Wiggins, it’s clear that he too is capable of trading his polka-dot jersey for yellow.
When I asked Sky team director Sean Yates (another Brit who wore yellow for a day in 1996) before stage 8 on Sunday morning what would happen if Froome beat Wiggins in the time trial on Monday, the laid-back team official replied. “That’s a bridge we will cross if it comes. But for now Chris is a minute and a half behind Brad on GC.”
So, a half century after Simpson first showed that British cyclists were capable of rivaling the best Europeans at the Tour, two of his compatriots are now there trying to win it. The strange thing is that neither of them was born in in England. Wiggins had an Australian dad, track racer Gary Wiggins, and was born in Ghent, Belgium. Froome’s British parents immigrated to Kenya before he was born there, in Nairobi, in 1985.
And if Froome and Wiggins continue in the way they’re riding this Tour, British fans won’t have to wait too long before they see another Brit winning a stage in the mountains in pulling on the yellow jersey.
John will be commenting Sunday on the outcome of stage 8