Bradley Wiggins was perhaps disappointed not to win the time trial stage and secure overall victory at the Tour of Murcia but after a month of early-season racing he must be quietly satisfied with his early form and that he looks set to build on his fourth place in last year's Tour de France.
This time last year Bradley Wiggins still thought he was only a track world champion and time trial specialist, who was happy to help to help his Garmin teammates target the Tour de France. Now, after his bitter divorce from Jonathan Vaughter's team, he is leader at Team Sky and the hope that he can be the first ever British Tour de France winner.
Many do not believe Wiggins can improve on his performance last year, but he and everyone at Team Sky are out to prove everyone wrong and they are not bothered who they may upset during the process.
"Last year was my third Tour and was the first time I'd gone for GC in any stage race. This year… who knows? Let's see how far I can push it. Just having the confidence to go for it makes a difference," he told Cyclingnews during a long interview.
"Contador is by far the outright favorite for the Tour de France. If he is in the form he was in last year, he is always going to be the favorite, because he’s the best climber in the world. Behind him, Andy Schleck is probably the second best in the world on the climbs and he’s only going to get stronger every year. But behind them, there is this group of riders: Cadel, Frank Schleck, Lance and myself, who could all possibly get on the podium in Paris."
"But if something happened in the Tour, if Contador crashed out or got sick, there’s always the chance that I could win the Tour de France. I never discount winning the bike race. Who knows what’s going to happen this year. Lance and Contador are on different teams. That rivalry will maybe come out more. Christian Vande Velde will be back in form. RadioShack is going to be strong. We’re going to bring a strong team.
"It’s going to be quite an interesting Tour. It’s not all going to be decided on the mountains. That first week is going to be decisive. It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be a difficult first week, that’s for sure."
"I want to see how much better I can be at the Tour this year. If I'd said last year I want to be top five nobody would have given me a chance in hell. So who knows what this year holds, with a full committed programme and the training, and knowing mentally that I can do it in the Tour."
From the track to a Tour contender
Many people were surprised by Wiggins transformation from track rider and time trialist to Tour contender. But he also proved, especially to other English-speaking riders that Tour success is no longer out of reach if you have the physiological and psychological strength to go for it.
"I think a lot of people still think I’m a bit of a fraud. I know one rider in particular who is adamant that I was on drugs last year at the Tour. I don’t know if that’s a general sentiment. Some don't think that but a lot of the French riders do," he said.
"But now the young riders know that success on the road is an achievable goal. For years we were always told by French teams: 'You'll never do anything at the Tour. How can we possible compete with these guys, they've got another gear.' You actually start believing that crap after a while. I believed that there was no way of getting top ten in the Tour if you didn't take drugs. But then when I saw Christian Vande Velde get fifth in 2008, that Tour changed everything for me."
Wiggins and the Team Sky performance physiologists are leaving no stone unturned as they prepare for the Tour de France. Some people don’t like Team Sky's more modern, hard-nosed, methodical approach, but Wiggins knows that any technical advantage could help him gain a few seconds.
"There’s a whole team of video analysis guys the English Institute of Sport that have broken down all the footage from last year’s race. They've measured out the length of the attacks on climbs and the average length between attacks on the climbs," he reveals.
"It could all be irrelevant, because that was last year’s race and that might not happen this year. But you have to cover every area. Anything can happen during the race, so there’s no harm in doing your homework, and really having a look at everything and just being as knowledgeable as you can about everyone you’re riding against."
"On the Col de la Romme, where they kept attacking last year, I thought I could do one more acceleration, but I didn’t, I stayed with Lance and Andy, Frank and Contador gained time. It's only when you look at the videos you actually see how hard Andy and Frank were trying. And you think, well, maybe if I had just gone one more, maybe they wouldn’t have had another attack in them.
"That’s quite interesting to see, because you just have the assumption at the time that, shit, they’re better climbers, they’ve lost me. But perhaps they're not and that gives you reassurance. In this year's Tour I'll feel more confident to push the envelop out further, knowing I won't crack. That'll make a difference."
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Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and Cycling Weekly, among other publications.