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Bradley Wiggins (Garmin-Slipstream) crosses the finish line in Andorre Arcalis.
Rest day reflections on team atmosphere and Armstrong
After a two-hour ride in the morning of the rest day in Limoges, Bradley Wiggins reflected on the first nine days of the Tour, which have seen him emerge, for the first time, as a rider who can live with the best in the mountains.
In particular, the Englishman, who is fifth overall, spoke about the environment and atmosphere in his new team, Garmin-Slipstream, which he said has been an important factor in his transformation from track superstar to possible Tour contender.
He admitted that, in deciding to switch his focus from track to road, he was inspired by Christian Vande Velde's performance in last year's Tour, in which the Garmin-Slipstream leader finished fifth overall. The inspiration came, said Wiggins, from "just the fact that I know he's clean," and so it opened his eyes to "what you can do on bread and water."
That had particular resonance for him, given that his last Tour, in 2007, ended prematurely when his Cofidis teammate, Cristian Moreni, tested positive for testosterone, and the entire team withdrew as a result. "I left the Tour in 2007 saying I'd never come back," said Wiggins. "But watching it on the telly last year, seeing people like Christian and Cav [Mark Cavendish], was a breath of fresh air from the previous years."
In comparing his current team with previous squads - from the ill-fated Linda McCartney to Francaise des Jeux, Credit Agricole, Cofidis and Columbia-High Road - he said that some experiences had been less than perfect, though he also blamed his own attitude, particularly following the 2004 Athens Olympics, for what he called "the lost years of 2005 and 2006."
"I didn't have the work ethic then," said Wiggins. "I was coming off the back of being Olympic champion at the age of 24, and I thought I was it, to be honest. I thought I'd made it.
"[In 2005] I was in a team that I disliked, surrounded by people that disliked me. In 2006 I just wanted to do the Tour [for the first time] to say I'd done the Tour. I didn't think I'd come back; I thought I'd lose my contract at the end of 2006, so I just wanted to say I'd done the Tour.
"I grew up in teams where the French had a real funny attitude towards everyone else," Wiggins continued. "There was this sense of, 'there's no way we can compete with those guys because they're doing other stuff, but we're French and we do it right, and we have croissants and baguettes, and we can sleep at night with a clear conscience and can't control what other people are doing.' Even if you were near [the top guys] on a stage, the attitude was: 'that was fantastic, look how well you did.' And you were feted for doing quite little things.
"It wasn't until I changed to Columbia that I realised the different mentality."
Yet Wiggins left Columbia at the end of last year, because, he said, "It was starting to become the Cav show a bit. I also felt the vibe in the team was very artificial.
"I always liked JV [Garmin-Slipstream manager Jonathan Vaughter]'s relaxed friendship, and I've had a good relationship with him over the years, since he was a rider.
"I might have had the same year if I'd stayed at Columbia, but they were definitely building a team around Cav for the sprints. They've got so many riders who can win bike races, you almost just become a number there. I wanted to blend into a team of similar riders with similar attitudes, and this team gives you the freedom to be who you want to be.
"We're much more of a family, without shouting about it. People want life contracts here. It's just like a close knit friendship, without going on about it. It's a relaxed atmosphere, and there's no pressure to get results, which suits me."
Being at the sharp end of the overall classification has brought Wiggins into daily contact with Lance Armstrong, and he admits he has spoken to the American "quite a bit." He said, "We had a good chat yesterday morning about the press, which was interesting.
"I've been getting the arse, to be honest, with a few of them, especially the French journalists," he continued. "It was really helpful, and nice to hear it from him." But he added: "I'm not going to tell you what he told me."
Wiggins, renowned for his dry wit, also offered his verdict on the power struggle between Astana teammates Armstrong and Alberto Contador. "I don't think anyone knows what's going to happen between those two, to be honest.
"There could come a point when they get off the bike and start fighting each other - it could get as messy as that. They both look as strong as each other: Lance looks superb. And Contador looks brilliant as well."