The final time trial of the Three Days of De Panne had the feel of a valedictory win for Bradley Wiggins, though the Briton will of course hope to add Paris-Roubaix to his palmarès before he departs Team Sky in 10 days’ time for his new, eponymous Continental outfit.
Wiggins first participated in De Panne in 2002, as a neo-professional with La Française des Jeux, and finished the concluding time trial in 12th place – incidentally, one spot behind another Sky man very much in the news in recent weeks, current directeur sportif Servais Knaven.
Victory on that same windswept course in 2009 was an early flourish in the season that proved to be the turning point of Wiggins’ entire career, and there was a sense of closing the circle when he claimed his first win in the rainbow jersey of world time trial champion on Thursday afternoon.
“It was one of my first time trials as a professional back in 2002 and it’s my last one on this level, so it’s nice to win. It was certainly on my mind all week and especially today, I really wanted to win this one,” Wiggins said afterwards. “I always like this time trial especially when the weather picks up.”
Wiggins showed no lingering effects of Thursday’s morning leg, quickly finding his rhythm on rolling down the start ramp, and it was immediately apparent that he would not be denied, even with 25 riders still to follow him. By close of business, only Stefan Küng (BMC) came within 10 seconds of Wiggins’ time on the 14.2km course, and the Briton had hauled himself up to third place overall, 42 seconds down on Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), for good measure.
“It felt horrible out there but I think it was the same for everyone,” Wiggins said. “When you race this morning really early it never feels like it’s flowing and fresh and everyone is trying really hard. But I knew there was an opportunity to jump onto the podium.”
When Sky announced last week that Wiggins had not been included in the E3 Harelbeke line-up, citing “race selection policy,” there were concerns that his preparations for Paris-Roubaix were behind schedule, particularly when he went on to abandon Gent-Wevelgem two days later. Wiggins confirmed that he had, in fact, been suffering from illness ahead of Harelbeke, and as if to prove the point, proceeded to spend much of the Three Days of De Panne placed near the front of the bunch.
“I was a bit sick at the start of last week and the team didn’t want to say anything, God knows why,” Wiggins said. “I had a bit of a virus and they thought it was shingles at first, the doctor. I had strange rashes on me. It was just after Paris-Nice. I started antibiotics and it cleared up and I resumed training and everything went well. It was more a precaution to come out of E3.
“I wasn’t 100 percent in Gent-Wevelgem so it’s taken me a few days to get going here but I feel like I’m back to where I was. I’ve been at the front every day committing to it and the team have done a great job putting me there, and then the time trial was a good test.”
While Paris-Roubaix is the centrepiece of Wiggins’ classics campaign – the Last Race Ever, as it were – he was optimistic about his prospects of featuring in the finale of the Tour of Flanders on Sunday. Last year, he rode strongly but cautiously to finish the race in 32nd place. This time around, he said he was eager to offer more robust support to Geraint Thomas.
“To be honest, I want to be in the final with him because I think that’s where you can make the biggest difference, in the final,” Wiggins said. “We’ve seen QuickStep have so many guys in the final in the last few years. That run-in after the Paterberg, if you’ve got strength in numbers there, that’s where you can make a difference. There’s no point in doing a job and swinging over with 50k to go.”
Thomas’ recent displays at Paris-Nice, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem have marked him out among the very top tier of favourites for the Tour of Flanders, all the more so given that Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara have both been ruled out due to injury.
“It’s good that we’ve got a British guy who can potentially win the Tour of Flanders: not since Tommy Simpson [winner in 1961 – ed.] have we had them,” Wiggins said of Thomas, before joking: “Even though he’ll say he’s Welsh: but he’s British when we want him to win the Tour of Flanders.”
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