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Wiggins and Froome on message ahead of mountains
Control has been the keyword for Sky so far in this year's Tour de France, and that thinking extended beyond the bike at the team's rest day press conference in Brouilly on Tuesday. Questions on the Rémi Di Grégorio affair and Twitter doping suspicions were deemed strictly off limits, with journalists curtly warned that any attempt to raise either matter would be cut off immediately.
Though disappointing, such fastidious management of the agenda is perhaps simply a reflection of the manner in which the team sponsored by the media behemoth has dictated affairs on the bike to date: after twin shows of force at La Planche des Belles Filles and Besançon, Sky holds a commanding overall lead through Bradley Wiggins, with Chris Froome lined up in 3rd place.
After his now (in)famous outburst on Sunday afternoon, control also permeated the measured words of the yellow jersey Wiggins, who looked to downplay wherever possible the growing expectations surrounding his chances. In particular, he warned that defending champion Cadel Evans (BMC) would pose a formidable challenge over the coming two weeks.
"I've said it a few times, I don't for one minute underestimate Cadel," Wiggins said. "We're in a dream scenario right now but we're just taking it one day at a time. I'm certainly not going to underestimate the guy at all. I've got huge respect for him and I know what he's capable of. I expect a fight from him."
In his own press conference on Tuesday, Evans was taking solace from the fact that he holds considerably more Grand Tour experience than Wiggins. In effect, the Briton has only twice chased a podium place in a Grand Tour for a full three full weeks, at the 2009 Tour and the 2011 Vuelta a España, and on each occasion his chances had been dented by the dreaded jour sans.
"Every year we get better," Wiggins said. "Obviously when I was 4th in the Tour, I had one bad day and again at the Vuelta last year, but that's just experience and Cadel has more Grand Tour experience than me."
Even at this early juncture, there appears to be consensus among Wiggins' rivals that the only way to prise the yellow jersey off him will be to isolate him from his teammates in the mountains.
"That's cycling, that's what it's all about," Wiggins said calmly. "I don't expect anyone at this stage of the race to say ‘yeah, it's fine, he's won it.'
"We expect this to be a shit fight for the next two weeks. That's how we've been preparing for it. That's what cycling's about."
In spite of his unease with comparisons between Sky and Lance Armstrong's infamous US Postal Service team, Wiggins was asked what he thought of the American's maxim that the Tour was decided in two time trials and one mountain stage.
"It's all very good doing that but you could have five bad days," he said. "Every Tour is different but we've been very calculating and businesslike about how we go about things here."
Froome stays on message
Wiggins has in recent months looked to posit Miguel Indurain and Banesto as the blueprint for his Tour challenge, and the Sky one-two in the Besançon time trial was something of an echo of the Spanish team's startling showing in Luxembourg in 1992. The Armand De Las Cuevas to Wiggins' Indurain on Monday was Chris Froome, although the 2011 Vuelta runner-up is now in a stronger position to challenge his leader than the mercurial Frenchman ever was (indeed, De Las Cuevas was eliminated five days later on the road to l'Alpe d'Huez.)
While it might be argued that Froome could have won last year's Vuelta had Sky rowed in behind him as team leader earlier in the race, the Kenyan-born rider stayed resolutely on message, insisting that Wiggins was in sole command of the Tour squad.
"It's definitely the priority to make sure the top step of the podium is filled by Bradley," he said. "After that, if I can be up there, then personally that would be a fantastic experience for me but the number one priority has to be Bradley and the top spot of the podium."
Snuffing out leading questions with the same disarming facility he showed when controlling the tempo at La Planche des Belles Filles, Froome refused to take the bait when asked if he would wait for Wiggins if he were to have an off-day in the mountains.
"It's got to be the priority to be with him and carry him to the line as best I can," he said quietly. "It's not worth me pushing on to get 2nd or 3rd when it's him who's got to win. I'm already two minutes behind him so unless the gap is more than two minutes – which I don't see happening – then it wouldn't make sense logically."
Instead, it seems that at 27 years of age, Froome is ready to sacrifice his own ambitions for the common cause in the hope that such loyalty will be rewarded in the future. "I know I'll get an opportunity one day in the future where I'm here with a team that is backing me like Sky is backing Bradley now," he said. "I'm not going to go out of my way to get an opportunity for the polka dot jersey or a stage win when we're here to defend something a lot more prestigious than that."
On Tuesday, Froome, Wiggins and Sky step back into the breach, as they face the testing 194.5km stage over the Col du Grand Colombier to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine. After an afternoon spent controlling questions and expectations, the men in black will look control the agenda again, this time out on the road.