Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky arrived late on Friday night in Qatar, leaving them with just one day to acclimatize and get ready to race. Yet the new British team is still targeting success in Sunday's opening 8.2 kilometre team time trial.
Wiggins was the first race leader at last year's Tour of Qatar after Garmin won the team time trial. This year he is back with Team Sky after an acrimonious split with Garmin and with the added responsibility of being a team leader and Tour de France contender.
Wiggins seems at ease with the added pressure and expectation and is simply happy to finally be getting his 2010 season underway. However, he is not afraid to speak his mind about what he describes as his 'divorce' from Garmin and recent criticism from former team mate Dave Millar.
"I’m just keen to get out there in the jersey. There's been so much talk up to now and I'm edging to get out there. All the deals have been done, all the talking has been done and now it's time to just get out there and get into the year," Wiggins said before heading out on a training ride.
"Last year we didn’t have a super-strong squad with Garmin, but we beat the favourites and that’s the goal again. Every race we go to now that’s what it’s all about for Sky. The expectation is always there with Team Sky, to stand here and say we’re not that bothered would be a lie. It’s a big objective for us tomorrow."
Strong team, strong rivals
Team Sky has a powerful roster for Qatar, with Edvald Boasson Hagen, Juan Antonio Flecha, Kurt-Asle Arvesen also in the squad. However they will go up against a strong Quick Step squad, a Fabian Cancellara-inspired Saxo Bank team and a Garmin-Transitions squad that includes sprinter Tyler Farrar.
“We haven’t had a great deal of preparation," Wiggins admitted. "But we haven't spent a lot of time together but we've come here and started to put the process together and we're thinking about all the little things we could gain an advantage with equipment. It’s a big objective. We’ve got a really good team.”
Wiggins revealed he might not lead Team Sky across the line in the team time trial and so might not pull on the leader's jersey if the team win the stage. After his fourth place in the Tour de France, Wiggins knows his big goals are later in the season.
“I’m not too fussed about that [the leader's jersey]. I'm a bit more relaxed this year and I know what I've got to do," he said.
"Last year the goal was to try and pick up as much as I could along the way. Now I know where I’m at in with training and where I need to be and what to do. Part of the reason for coming here was to give support to Edvald [Boasson Hagen] and Kurt [Arvesen] and Gee [Geraint Thomas], the guys who are going to be there for me in July. I wanted to be here to be part of the team and start building that relationship.”
An emotional divorce
Wiggins is keen to put all the talk about his split from Garmin behind and concentrate on racing with Team Sky.
He refutes claims by David Millar that Team Sky lack sportsmanship and acknowledges that Garmin's support helped him finish fourth in the Tour de France and ultimately secure his place at Team Sky.
"I suppose there's a lot of emotion involved, I suppose it's a lot like a divorce," Wiggins said.
"It wasn't really anything personal with the riders and I spoke to most of them before I left. I know I couldn't have got fourth without the help those guys gave me. But I think I can do better this year and make improvements in certain areas I felt I was always restricted with at that team."
"This thing all came about because I got fourth in the Tour, which no one expected. There was a British team being set up at the time and so there was no way I could not be part of it. Some one was always going to get hurt along the way but that's the way it is."
A deal was done
It is often forgotten that Wiggins was able to break his contract with Garmin because an agreement was reached behind closed doors. Team Sky was desperate to sign Wiggins and ultimately Garmin team manager Jonathan Vaughters let him go. On Saturday a story in The Times newspaper in Britain suggested that Team Sky paid around £4 million (approx USD6.25 million) to placate Garmin.
"There was a settlement and I think the idea of a deal is that both parties are happy with it," Wiggins said.
"There was a lot of bullshit post announcement from their point of view."
"I was disappointed that Dave said I'd never appreciated what he and Christian Vande Velde did for me but Christian knows I did things for him post-Tour and he knows how much I appreciated [his support]. Christian's fine with it. I think Dave is just a miss-informed in some areas."
Millar's Team Sky disappointment
Wiggins suggested that Millar criticism stems from the Scot's disappointment of not being part of Team Sky.
While building the 26-rider squad, management decided they would not sign riders who had tested positive for doping products during their careers. Despite Millar's strong stance on doping now, his confession of taking EPO early in his career ended his chances of riding for Team Sky.
"It's easier for him to say stuff like that [about sportsmanship and Team Sky]. I think a year ago he was ready to come to this team. That's what he wanted but it didn't happen for various reasons from Sky's point of view. So it's easy for him to now sit and say this that and the other."
Wiggins hopes he can eventually clear things up with Millar and rebuild their once close friendship, either over coffee or in perhaps in a boxing ring.
"I think once we'll see each other we'll have a quiet coffee and talk over it. He can have a fight if he wants… I'm up for one," Wiggins added with a smile that indicates their exchange of words will eventually leave few scars on their personal friendship.