Bradley Wiggins breezed through the third mountain stage of the Tour, maintaining his overall position of fifth, just 46 seconds behind Rinaldo Nocentini, ahead of the rest day and with the Alps looming at the end of the week.
"It was a pretty steady day," said Wiggins in Tarbes. "Andy Schleck [an attacker the previous day] controlled himself a bit better. All in all it was another good day for me.
"I’ll take it day by day," continued Wiggins, "I keep telling myself that. If it’s hurting me, it’s bound to be hurting the other guys as well."
Sandwiched between the Alps and the penultimate stage to the summit of Mont Ventoux is the longest individual time trial of this year’s race at Annecy – which could be as crucial in determining the overall placings as the much vaunted Ventoux finish. It could suit Wiggins, a specialist at the discipline, even if his recent weight loss has turned him into an excellent climber (and explains a newly acquired nickname – The Twig, a variation on The Wig, or Wiggo).
"If I’m still close on general classification [at the time of the time trial] then it’ll obviously work in my favour," said Wiggins, "but it’s still quite a way off that. I keep saying, I’m taking it day by day, and not getting too excited."
Wiggins is aware that his apparently dramatic breakthrough could give rise to suspicion, but he sought to reassure his followers on Sunday morning, posting on his Twitter site: "Keep the faith people, I ain’t no Bernhard Kohl" – a reference to the Austrian who was the surprise package of last year’s Tour, finishing third overall and winning the King of the Mountains classification before testing positive for CERA.
Another revelation of last year’s race was Wiggins’s Garmin-Slipstream team-mate Christian Vande Velde, who placed fifth in Paris, and who said at the finish in Tarbes on Sunday that he isn’t surprised at all by his British teammate. "I’m surprised by how calm he is and how well he’s taking it all in. He’s in a situation I was in last year, which is kind of funny to see."
Vande Velde continued: "We’re helping each other out quite a bit, and it’s really nice to have someone there with me. It’s huge having him there; mentally it makes everything easier, when you look over and see a team mate, and can give each other water."
And he didn’t hesitate to name him as being, on the basis of the three days in the Pyrenees, one of the world’s best climbers: "You can’t say he’s climbing with the best climbers in the world – he is one of the best climbers in the world. And he’s one of the best time triallists in the world, so there is no reason why Brad can’t do an amazing result here."
To many observers there appear to be two Wiggins: the intensely focused rider and, off the bike, the laidback and wag, whose impersonations are the stuff of legend. "In the race he’s really serious," said Vande Velde. "But after the race he’s never serious. He’s the world’s best impersonator, so you’re always scared to leave the bus in case you’re next. He’s a really intelligent, funny guy. His best impression is of Cav."