Bradley Wiggins wore a half-smile as he was presented at the sign-on ahead of Scheldeprijs in Antwerp on Wednesday, telling the gathered masses that his plan for the day was to sit on the back and "wait for the crash," before playfully inspecting and then dismissing the race’s gold trophy. "It’s not worth winning the bike race for that, is it?" he deadpanned.
When it comes to Paris-Roubaix this weekend, however, Wiggins is rather more serious. Given that he has followed a largely different race programme to the rest of Sky’s classics unit so far this season, externally at least, there was a degree of uncertainty over his precise intentions for the race, but those doubts were allayed by a solid display at the Tour of Flanders last Sunday.
"I want to do well in Roubaix, it’s no secret. You don’t start that race unless you want to do well," Wiggins told reporters on the start line of Scheldeprijs. "I wouldn’t have risked it in Flanders if I didn’t want to do well in Roubaix. Whether it happens or not is another thing."
The Englishman’s decision to focus on the Hell of the North this spring has elicited understandable curiosity: the last Tour de France winner to triumph in the Roubaix velodrome was Bernard Hinault in 1981, and only three others, Eddy Merckx, Felice Gimondi and Jan Janssen (whose Roubaix win pre-dated his Tour triumph) have done so in the last half century.
Wiggins, of course, is no Paris-Roubaix neophyte, and lined up in the race as recently as 2011, his second season at Team Sky. By his own admission, however, he was reluctant at that point to take the necessary risks in the fight for position on the pavé, but with Tour de France victory no longer an overriding objective, that mindset appears to have altered.
"Obviously I have no bigger picture and I can afford to take the risks in these races now, whereas a few years ago I rode Roubaix but there was always one mind on the Tour," he said.
Wiggins was a late call-up to Sky’s Tour of Flanders team as a replacement for Ian Stannard, as he described the experience as a positive one, although he quipped that positioning remains a bugbear: "I had really good legs on Sunday. I’d be lethal if I could ride positions."
For that reason alone, the jury is out among Wiggins’ peers as to whether he will be in the mix on Sunday. Filippo Pozzato told Cyclingnews that he reckons the Englishman’s natural reticence to take risks will play against him, but Taylor Phinney noted that in theory, at least, the battle for positions is not quite as frenetic at Paris-Roubaix as it is on Belgian roads.
"It’s a bit more on having the legs in Roubaix, so as the race wears on, dewer guys can keep fighting, and I think that’s where I’ll certainly come to the fore is in the final 50k because I’ll have the legs and the length," Wiggins said. "Obviously there’s a lot that happens before then and it’s avoiding all of that stuff."
Matching Cancellara and Boonen
When questioned in February, Fabian Cancellara was skeptical about Wiggins’ prospects of competing with the likes of Tom Boonen and him through the Arenberg Forest, opining that Paris-Roubaix was no longer a race for riders with the body shape of a Grand Tour contender.
Wiggins, of course, is no longer the same skeletal figure who won the Tour in 2012, but while he has built the opening part of his season around Paris-Roubaix, he stated that simply being in the mix with Cancellara and Boonen is the summit of his ambition for now.
"It would just be nice to be in their company in the final. I think that’s going to be my biggest challenge, to be in a position to be with those guys. That alone would be quite something," he said. "After that, thoughts of how to beat them hasn’t even entered my mind. It would be a big honour just to be with those guys in that position."
That said, on a purely physical level, Wiggins believes that he can compete with Cancellara and Boonen when it comes to long, steady accelerations over the pavé – Phinney has compared the effort to that of an individual pursuit – but he is aware, too, that Paris-Roubaix is not decided by raw power alone.
"I think on paper you’d say yes, in terms of time trial ability and flat speed and stuff, but riding on the cobbles after 230, 240k is a completely different thing to doing a 50km time trial or a prologue. That’s why those guys are the best in the world at what they do," he said.
As ever at Team Sky, be it in the classics or the grand tours, the question of team leadership is something of a thorny issue. On Wednesday morning, Geraint Thomas and Wiggins each pointed to one another as potential leaders, while Edvald Boasson Hagen and Bernhard Eisel are also in the frame.
"It would just be good to have numbers in the final, really, and then we’ll see who’s got the legs," Wiggins said. "It’s so difficult to put all of your eggs into one basket in Roubaix because anything can happen. We’ve seen in the last three years there’s always a surprise, always someone in the top ten who maybe you wouldn’t have predicted to be there so you just never know."