As reporters loitered in the doorway of Kortrijk’s Hotel Messeyne on Friday afternoon ahead of Sky’s pre-Paris-Roubaix press conference, word filtered through that the main attraction, Bradley Wiggins, was not inclined to come downstairs and speak with them.
The sight of a group of British journalists arguing the toss with a Sky press officer on the pavement outside the hotel would, in its own way, have been a perfectly fitting way for Wiggins to sign off on his final round of media duties with the team, but eventually he filed into a conference room at the rear of the hotel to face questions, wrapped up in a black jacket and woolly hat.
Wiggins’ classics campaign to date has had a decidedly valedictory feel. Ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and again before the Tour of Flanders, he regaled journalists with memories of watching Paris-Roubaix and his early professional experiences. Now 48 hours ahead of The Last Race Ever, however, he made it clear that he was in no mood to cast an eye back over his career just now.
“I’m just focused on the race. I’m trying not to think about that, it’s becoming quite negative now. I’m not enjoying it,” Wiggins said. “My career finishes on Sunday, not before, so I need to focus on the race and not keep thinking about all the nostalgic parts of it. I’m just focused on trying to get my head in the right frame of mind for the race with no thoughts of afterwards because that makes the job even harder.”
All winter, Wiggins’ preparations for his final crack at Paris-Roubaix have made headlines across Europe and the attention has only intensified following the withdrawal of both Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen through injury. The Englishman took the step of reconnoitring the pavé once a month over the off-season in order to see the Roubaix finale in various conditions, though he stressed that, unlike a time trial or a pursuit, his methodical approach offered no guarantees.
“It’s not as quantifiable, I’ve been saying that all winter that it’s not a given,” Wiggins said. “I was talking to Sep Vanmarcke the other day. He said: ‘If you listen to the press you’ve won it already.’ And I said to him that if it was as easy as that I’d have done it fifteen years ago. You can be in the best possible shape and finish last in Roubaix. It’s really like that. You can have a puncture at the wrong time, a crash, and it’s over.”
Twelve months ago, Wiggins lined up for Paris-Roubaix as a curiosity rather than as a favourite, though he underlined his physical aptitude for the race by finishing in 9th position, as part of the group that sprinted for the podium places on the velodrome. It remains to be seen how Wiggins applies the lessons of that experience during Sunday’s race, but at the very least, he ought to line up in Compiegne with greater assurance.
“It’s a complete contrast to where I was last year. I know I can do it now. Last year it was just a case of trying to confirm to myself I could do it,” he said. “I feel I’m in a better place not only physically – I can factually say that I am – but mentally too. I’ve done all the other [cobbled] races up to it, Het Volk to De Panne, and aside from falling in Flanders it’s gone well. There’s not a lot we could have done differently.”
There were, however, things Wiggins wishes he had done differently during last year’s finale, when he found himself with teammate Geraint Thomas in the winning move, but neither man launched an attack. “If we were in the same position as last year I’d actually open me mouth and talk to him,” Wiggins admitted. “I realise now that I was a bit star-struck last year. We didn’t talk enough as a team in the final because none of us knew Eddy [Boasson Hagen] wasn’t feeling great. It’s important to talk to each other in Roubaix.”
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Wiggins was coy about the kind of tactics Sky will employ on Sunday – “I ain’t going to tell you that,” he quipped – though like Ian Stannard earlier in the week, he suggested that they might not look to repeat their Tour of Flanders showing, where the men in black spent much of the day controlling the peloton. “I think it would be easier to ride on the front at Roubaix than in Flanders but that’s not to say we’re going to do it,” he said. “You can have a game plan but you have to be ready to adapt because so much happens.”
Several chapters of the play book will surely, however, be built around shedding fast men such as John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) and pre-race favourite Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) from the front group. “The strength we’re going to have is that we’re going to have numbers [in the finale] but we haven’t really got anyone who can win a sprint on the velodrome, so we’ll have to go from a small group or alone,” Wiggins said, noting that his dream scenario would simply be a repeat of last year – up to a point. “I’d like to be in the same position at the start of the Carrefour de l’Arbre [as last year]. If somebody offered me that now I’d take it.”
Wiggins is significantly more corpulent now than during his surprising transition into a Grand Tour contender and he currently weighs eight kilogrammes more than the startlingly gaunt figure who won the Tour de France three years ago. “It was easier getting eight kilos bigger, it’s certainly not as strenuous as trying to be as lean as possible,” he said of the difference between preparing for the classics and preparing for the Tour.
Earlier in the spring, Wiggins admitted that he had not particularly enjoyed the process of winning the Tour, in part due to the internecine tensions with Chris Froome and in part due to the wearying nature of Sky’s particular brand of preparation for three-week races, which includes lengthy spells at altitude training camps. The clear implication was that there was a decidedly more relaxed atmosphere in Sky’s classics unit, and he noted sympathetically that some of his cohorts at Paris-Roubaix, including Thomas and Ian Stannard, will have to alter their mind-sets and turn their thoughts to preparing for the Tour from Sunday evening.
“I was joking the other day saying that ‘you poor sods have to ride the Tour team now and it’s all miserable and everyone’s depressed because they’ve got to lose weight.’ They’re all like: ‘I know, don’t remind me of it,’ Wiggins said. “Everyone’s just having a great time. It’s a shame it’s got to come to an end.”