Eddy Merckx once told me: “When you are the strongest, the Tour is the easiest race to win because it is the hardest race of all.”
In Saturday’s stage 19 time trial, to cap three weeks of racing at the front in this 99th Tour de France, Brad Wiggins showed beyond any question that he is the strongest man in the race. And as such he deserves to be the one who’s acclaimed in Paris on Sunday afternoon as the new champion. But was it the easiest race to win, as Merckx’s words suggest?
Given his time-trial prowess in a time-trial-heavy Tour, given the unified strength of his Sky teammates in the mountains, and given the obsessive nature of their training regimen, then, yes, it was the easiest race to win. But it would never have been possible without the people behind Wiggins: workaholic team boss Dave Brailsford, head coach and long-time confidant Shane Sutton, sports scientist Tim Kerrison, and senior sports director Sean Yates.
When Brailsford—who masterminded the 2008 British Olympic track team’s seven golds from 10 events—said at the launch of Team Sky three years ago that his goal was to have a British winner of the Tour de France within five years, most observers sniggered. And when all the team could do at its debut Tour in 2010 was 24th overall for Wiggins and no stage wins, after Brailsford had spent an estimated $30 million putting the team together, the skeptics said there was no way that Sky would produce a British winner within 10 years, let alone five.
And yet Brailsford is persistent. He hired Kerrison, an Australian who previously worked with his country’s swimming and rowing teams. He’s an expert in altitude training, so after studying Wiggins’s previous performances in the climbing stages of the Tour—notably his fifth place at Verbier and 10th on Mont Ventoux at the 2009 Tour—Kerrison decided that Wiggins was weakest on climbs higher than 5,000 feet (about 1,700 meters); he had to improve his ability to accelerate on grades steeper than 10 percent; and he needed to improve his performance in hot weather.
To help in all those areas, Kerrison set up training camps at the Parador Hotel Cañadas, 7,000 feet (2,200 meters) above sea level on the extinct Teide volcano on the Spanish island of Tenerife, off the coast of Morocco. This year, Wiggins and his climber teammates did two-week camps there in April (before the Tour de Romandie) and May (before the Critérium du Dauphiné). On the second of those camps, the riders climbed an estimated 100,000 feet (32,000 meters) in the 14 days. Wiggins said this intensive training “is harder than racing.” Which explains how and why the Sky team was able to climb as such a high level at this Tour.
Kerrison said that in his fourth-place finish at the ’09 Tour (with Garmin-Slipstream), Wiggins could sustain 410 watts for an hour-long climb. At this Tour, he and his teammates Chris Froome, Richie Porte and Michael Rogers, were riding at an estimated 450-watt pace on the major climbs. That’s why the attacks made by Cadel Evans in the Alps and Vincenzo Nibali in the Pyrénées never had a chance of succeeding—because it’s impossible to ride at 500 watts for a whole climb.
The Australian-born Sutton, who raced on British pro teams in the 1980s before becoming head coach at British Cycling (and now Team Sky), has worked with Wiggins since 2001. Sutton has a non-nonsense, but-to-the chase personality, much like Yates, the team’s British directeur sportif, who wore the Tour yellow jersey for a day in 1994 and has developed into a shrewd tactician. He also has the riders’ respect because of his work ethic as both a rider and director.
In fact, before the two time-trial-stage wins by Wiggins this month, Yates was the only Briton to have won a long Tour time trial. That was in 1988, when he averaged 50.026 kph (then a Tour record) in the 52-kilometer stage from Liévin to Wasquehal. Interestingly, on Saturday, 24 years later, Wiggins averaged 49.987 kph for the 53.5-kilometer stage from Bonneval to Chartres—albeit with a head wind for most of the way.
As with this Tour’s first long time trial at Besançon, Wiggins was fastest on every sector of the course, gaining an average of 1.38 seconds per kilometer on runner-up and teammate Chris Froome (compared with a gain of 0.84 seconds per kilometer at Besançon). This improved showing by Wiggins shows how he has become stronger over the course of the three weeks compared with the others, most of who have shown more signs of fatigue than Wiggins and Froome. That’s no surprise when you consider all the facts above, and that Wiggins rarely hit the front of any lead group. His teammates did all the grunt work,
Wiggins however always had something in reserve. He proved that on Friday when he went to the front of the peloton on stage 18 into Brive to close down the break and set up teammate Mark Cavendish for his triumphant sprint. Wiggins showed his delight by punching the air as Cavendish crossed the line. The lean Englishman in the yellow jersey did the same as he crossed the line to win Saturday’s time trial (and the Tour!). And, if the circumstance is right on Sunday, we could see the maillot jaune once more closing gaps and setting up Cavendish for his 23rd stage win in five years.
Even if Cavendish doesn’t get the win, Wiggins will likely punch the air one more time on the Champs-Élysées, which will be lined with British fans and their Union Jack flags. Thousands have crossed the Channel in the past couple of days to be in Paris to celebrate this historic first British victory in the Tour’s 110-year history. But it won’t be the last. As Merckx said, “When you are the strongest, the Tour is the easiest race to win.”