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Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky)
Briton reveals he will retire after 2013
Bradley Wiggins is convinced he is ready to challenge for overall victory at the Tour de France after what he describes as a near perfect build up to what has now become his biggest goal of the season and even his career.
Speaking from Girona in Spain, where he is completing his final training before heading to Rotterdam, the Team Sky leader was bullish and confident. He talked with the swagger that he uses to convince himself, and his rivals, that he can again be a real Tour de France contender.
On Thursday Wiggins tested his form on a 30-minute climb in the mountains behind Girona. He did not reveal the exact physiological numbers he produced or his key strength to weight ratio figure, just saying the test went "very well". However he confirmed that he is now down to the 73 kilogramme racing weight that helped make him competitive last year and allowed him to take a surprise fourth place overall.
Wiggins has not raced since completing the Giro d'Italia and will not ride the British national championships this weekend but is ready for the start of the Tour de France next Saturday.
"I'm happy with my form, we've followed a near perfect plan which has taken us from last November to now. It's a nice position to be in," he said.
"It was actually frustrating to hold back with my weight loss but I know I've got to think of the big picture and the Tour de France. There were times when I really wanted to make the most of the condition I had at the Giro d'Italia but two kilos on an hour-long climb makes a huge difference. It meant there was no way I could challenge for overall success. Instead I decided to just stay healthy, get the fitness benefits and drop that last bit of weight.
"Now I'm at the Tour weight I was last year but having remained as powerful. Fat wise, there's nothing left to go without breaking the screw, anything else would be losing muscle and power. I'm bang on 73 kilos, we're in the ballpark now."
Wiggins tries to hide his inner fears and has worked with team psychologist Steve Peters. He learnt to deflect the huge expectations he must bear as the leader at Team Sky.
"It doesn't get much better than this, finishing high up on GC, whether winning, finishing second, third, I'm going to go out there and give my best. I don't know what my best is, it's all relatively new to me and that makes it quite exciting," he said.
"I still feel I've got nothing to lose. If I get on the podium, people will say I just got on the podium, if I fail miserably, I'll fail miserably. I'm relaxed at the moment and going out there convinced to do the best I can. It's not a life and death situation, it's just sport, I actually enjoy it. Mentally the Tour de France is easy compared to an Olympic final when you're 50 seconds away from the start. Of course physically it's much harder because it's much longer. But if you can conquer it mentally, it will stand you in good stead physically."
Wiggins finished 6:01 behind Alberto Contador in last year's Tour de France. He was just 35 seconds behind Lance Armstrong and a place on the final podium and believes he is one of six or seven overall contenders who will be fighting for podium places this year.
"The Tour is a hard race and this year it has a hard profile but if it's hard for me, it's hard for everyone else," he said.
"It's actually simple math of power to weight. No one will have an easy Tour de France. We'll see what happens. There will be quite a few more guys up there this year that weren't there last year. There are perhaps six or seven names now, including Basso and Vinokourov. Contador is the strong favourite but no one is unbeatable, Lance has come into form at the right time and has the experience. It's going to be a good race to watch. We'll see what everybody has got."
Team Sky has a selected a strong team to support Wiggins, opting for Michael Barry, an extra and very experienced domestique, rather than sprinter Greg Henderson. The experience of the early stages of the Giro d'Italia in the Netherlands showed Team Sky they need to be ready for the dangerous early stages of the Tour de France on similar roads and then the nervous stages in Belgium and northern France. Wiggins can count on the strength and talent of Barry, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Juan Antonio Flecha, Thomas Löfkvist, Simon Gerrans, Steve Cummings, Geraint Thomas and Serge Pauwels.
"The first week will be pretty hectic. Some of the stages will be make or break," Wiggins said.
"We did have a mini-dress rehearsal on the Holland stage of the Giro and the team has been built around getting through those stages. People like Edvald Boasson Hagen and Flecha will be invaluable."
Wiggins is proud to be the team leader of British cycling.
"Allowing myself to be slightly emotional for a second, I'm very proud to be part of a British team," he said.
"This is the first time since the ANC team or going as far back to Tommy Simpson's time that there has been a British team in the Tour. It feels like I've been giving captaincy to lead England into the World Cup. It's quite a proud moment for me but the proudest moment will be hopefully finishing the job off.
"It's amazing to see where the sport of cycling in Britain is at the moment. There will be seven Brits riding this year's Tour. Cav's probably confident about winning the green points jersey too. That's fantastic for the sport."
Success by Wiggins at the Tour de France would be huge for cycling in Britain. To put it into perspective just how big, he was not afraid to admit a yellow jersey would be worth much more than Olympic gold.
Wiggins revealed that he still hopes to ride in the team pursuit at the London 2012 Olympics but that will be his last ever track event and added that he will retire from cycling in 2013, when his contract with Team Sky ends. Wiggins has set himself a deadline of 2013 to win the Tour de France.
"It (winning the Tour de France) would surpass the Olympics by quite a lot," he said.
"I think it would be a bigger achievement, especially in cycling. However doing both would also be special.
"I plan to come back to the track in 2012 and compete in the team pursuit. I'd love to walk away from London with a gold, happy with what I've achieved. I've got another year on my contract until 2013 but London will be my last big ride on the track. After 2013 I'll be gone."