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Bradley Wiggins went deep into the pain cave on stage 15 to Verbier.
Taking small steps toward becoming first Brit to podium at Tour
Third overall behind Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong, Bradley Wiggins finds himself in unknown territory as the Tour de France heads into its most crucial and difficult third week. To the skepticism of many, Wiggins declared at the race start in Monaco that a top twenty position overall was well within his grasp.
After a strong first week, and an even stronger display on the stage to Verbier, where he finished in an elite group ahead of Armstrong and Cadel Evans, the Garmin-Slipstream rider is perfectly poised for a possible podium place in Paris. Something no Englishman has ever achieved.
Not that Wiggins is letting himself get carried away with all the hype and pressure. "My goal, ultimately is to get to Paris with the best result I can achieve. I want to seize the moment as I might never be in this position again," Wiggins said at a press conference during today's rest day.
There's no doubt, no matter how much Wiggins would like to shy away from the fact, that he's been the revelation of this year's Tour. He's performed higher than even his own expectations as he showed in Verbier, attacking riders like Lance Armstrong, Fränk Schleck and last year's winner, Carlos Sastre.
"I said at the start that there was a lot that goes into riding the Tour. I could have lost four minutes in the first week due to splits and crashes, but the team has done a great job in staying together. We just had that one slip up in the first few days."
His stage 15 attack was enough to split a group of favourites who, until this Tour, were not used to seeing the track specialist figure in the high mountains of major tours. "It was spur of the moment," Wiggins said about the attack. "Matt [White] could see the race from behind and was telling me they were on the ropes a bit."
At that point, Contador and Schleck had already flown the coop, leaving Astana's duo of Armstrong and Klöden setting tempo. "I felt that Klöden kept coming to the front to slow it down, and I didn't want guys coming up from behind, like Sastre.
"It was a half-hearted attack to see what they had. Then Fränk Shleck went and then Nibali and then I thought it was time to go, too. I was just trying to keep the pressure on."
It may have been half-hearted, but it was enough to help move him into third overall and prove that he's not just a rider for the track or time trials.
His mantra of taking the Tour day-by-day has served him well and he'll look to continue that as the race rolls deep into the Alps for two crucial stages that will test both his strength and recovery to limits perhaps not even he knows.
"I just forget about everything that everyone has been saying about me and just keep doing what I'm doing. Tomorrow is a tough stage with tough climbs," he said before giving an assessment of his methodology. "You don't look at a summit when you're climbing a mountain. You set up base camps and look at certain points. Otherwise you might crack. It's small steps."
According to Wiggins, Contador is the clear favourite to win his second Tour and he, unlike Wiggins, has a proven Tour pedigree. "I'm not necessarily aiming for yellow, I'm just looking to do my best ride I can and consolidate where I am. I'm not stupid enough to think I can beat Contador. I think he's proven he's by far the best bike rider in this race and you never really know how hard to tighten stuff before it breaks and I don't want to over-tighten things.
"Paris is along way off yet and this race is by no means done yet.
"The history of the Tour shows you know everything can be lost in one day. I've been saying day-by-day since Monaco, and everyone is been sick and tired of me saying it. Everyone wants me to say what they want to hear, but I just keep it in perspective at this stage.
"In Monaco I said I had the possibility of going top twenty and the amount of stick I got for saying that was unreal. People were laughing and calling me all sorts, so at this stage I've come this far with the people around me and we're just going to stick together and take it day by day. Up till now we've done a pretty good job."
After yesterday's stage Wiggins will find a perfect ally in Christrian Vande Velde, his teammate who lost time and now sits nearly five minutes down. Vande Velde crashed heavily earlier in the year in the Giro'd Italia, and has done well to recover enough to even be at this year's race, never mind near the top of a field he finished fifth in, in last year's race.
The American also has a proven track record in supporting riders, having served Armstrong at US Postal and then Sastre at CSC in previous seasons.
"Until yesterday we were still supporting each other right from the start. Christian has had a totally different Tour preparation and I've had a near perfect preparation, so coming into the race we had equal roles in the first week and up until the foot of yesterday's climb. He isn't that far off and a lot can change in this final week. We're both there supporting each other in the mountains. On a personal level it's been really encouraging."