Bradley Wiggins says he will be going into the Tour de France with twin goals on Saturday: "The goal is always the podium but I'm not going to overthink it, either."
And if he can avoid what he calls the "year of absolute disappointment and public humiliation" that culminated with his 2010 débâcle in the Tour, so much the better.
"Overthinking it" is shorthand for the leaving-no-stone-unturned philosophy of "marginal gains" that guided Britain to eight Olympic golds in cycling in 2008, including two for Wiggins. But it proved to be the Sky leader's undoing when he and team management, many from British Cycling, tried to apply the same ethos to the Tour de France last year.
This season, he says, there is far less pressure on him to succeed and far less attention being paid to detail. But so far this year he has performed far better, a conundrum that, he believes, could take him further than any Briton has ever gone in the Tour de France.
When Wiggins took fourth overall, in 2009 – equalling the previous best British result set 25 years before – much of it, though by no means all, was improvised. For the first two weeks Wiggins had all but made up the numbers for Garmin, his previous squad, and his pre-Tour preparation had been minimal. The first time he looked to see where the Tour was going was the night before it started and earlier in the season, far from planning an assault on the race "we'd sit around taking the piss".
However, as leader of the new Sky team in 2010, Wiggins had an entire squad – eight team-mates, over 30 staff and a multi-million-pound budget – as extra pressure on his shoulders. And he buckled.
On paper, it didn't make sense. Wiggins had ridden over every mountain stage in reconnaissance. He was so obsessed with his weight that the team joked they could see through his arms. But rather than shine, he plummeted to 24th overall in Paris and was never in contention.
"I had a year in which I could do no wrong in 2009, then a year when the pressure was incredible," he said. "I didn't step up to the role mentally, shied away from a lot of it. I wasn't carrying the team with me. Major mistakes were made."
The low-tide mark came after another Briton, David Millar, showed him up by winning the silver in the World Championships time trial, Wiggins' speciality, last September. He got what he calls "a severe bollocking from the team management [because] I was so far away from the role I was supposed to be filling as leader. I had to make amends".
Wiggins asked Shane Sutton, a long-standing coach of his at British Cycling, to train him full-time. "I handed them my body and said, 'get this machine working for next year'. "He kept pushing me at times when I might have backed off in the past."
A rigorous training programme apart, big changes included prolonged bouts of riding at altitude to try to handle Wiggins' weakestpoint, performing on the Tour's highest mountain slopes, dropping most of the pre-race reconnaissance and scrapping an overly rigid weight programme.
Most important of all, though, was reducing the Tour's significance on Wiggins' and Sky's hit-list, or as he puts it: "We've got a team now that can do all kinds of races across the board. The Tour is unfinished business. But this year I'm seeing the bigger picture."
Radically resetting his objectives led to Wiggins taking the best victory of his professional road career, the Critérium du Dauphiné, just three weeks ago. At the same time he says he is now going into cycling's premier event in far better shape than in 2009 – because of, rather than despite, the lower focus on the Tour.
"It's a huge contrast to a year ago when I was sitting here trying to convince everyone it was alright when I probably knew it wasn't going to happen.
"The results speak for themselves. I'm in a great position, twice the position I was in Monaco [the Tour start in 2009] two years ago. Now the top 10 seems more than achievable, but all of a sudden getting on the podium seems achievable too."
"There was a lot of hype last year, a lot of pressure on his shoulders with everybody thinking it was a big thing," Wiggins' team-mate and fellow gold medallist in the 2008 Olympic Games, Geraint Thomas, says. "He's a lot more relaxed now, and ready to go."
Wiggins says he will race in the style that turned him into England's first winner of the Critérium du Dauphiné in 50 years, which means taking the climbs at his own pace. "I won't be trying to go with [top Tour contenders] Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck. It'll be about losing 40 seconds on a climb rather than making an explosive effort to stay with the pure climbers and lose two minutes.
"It's not pretty, it's not riding with panache, but it's reality. I realised at the Dauphiné there's no shame in slipping off the back a little, even if you are wearing the yellow jersey."
With his optimism renewed, Wiggins is also getting even more ambitious about 2012, when he says he cannot see himself not taking part in the Tour even with the Olympics starting in London less than 10 days afterwards.
"The Tour has become a part of who I am. I've made such progress this year that at my age, going back and just concentrating on the team pursuit [in which he took gold in Beijing and silver in Athens in 2004] would be the wrong thing to do.
"Quitting the Tour would be ridiculous. Cav [Mark Cavendish] did it in the 2008 Olympics and he's always regretted it."
Instead he has three-fold objectives: first the Tour, then go on to the Olympic time trial, and finally the team pursuit. "I certainly haven't discounted it. The way my form is right now, even before I've done the Tour, if I was to get up tomorrow with [the Beijing Olympic team pursuiters] Geraint Thomas and Ed Clancy we'd go as fast as we did in January off the back of six weeks' track work."
Whatever result Wiggins achieves after the Tour kicks off on Saturday, he knows the race will be ridden under the shadow of Contador's positive test for the banned drug clenbuterol last year. Contador was cleared by his federation but the decision has been appealed.
Wiggins personally believes that Contador – who alleges the drug was in his system because of contaminated foodstuff – is innocent, and expresses outrage at the length of time the case is taking to be resolved.
"At the end of the day, in any case, I know I finished the Tour fourth on bread and water," Wiggins says, "and I'll continue with that philosophy and see where I get to this year." Without, though, thinking too hard about it.Reuse content