This time last year, Bradley Wiggins told himself that if all went well in the Tour de France, he might end up in the top 20. In fact, he came fourth – equalling the highest finish by a British rider, Robert Millar in 1984 – and from that success in 2009 come commensurate expectations this time round, from himself and from others. Yet Wiggins also knows the value of not talking up his chances in the great race, which begins tomorrow.
"Anything could happen," he says. "I could underachieve or overachieve. [Alberto] Contador is the best athlete in terms of climbing mountains, but he can crash, he can get sick..." Or, though Wiggins leaves it unsaid, the wiry Spaniard could just be beaten fair and square.
If 30-year-old Wiggins fails to surpass last year's achievements, it won't be for lack of meticulous, if not obsessive attention to detail, on the part of every member of his entourage at the newly formed Team Sky. "There are some things that we can't plan for. Like we crashed on day two of the Giro, and lost four minutes. But what this team does is control all the controllables. It's the Manchester United of cycling." A pause, and then he completes the analogy. "You don't win the Champions League with Wigan," he says.
More pertinently, can he, as team leader, win the Tour de France with Team Sky? "Weight is the biggest issue," he says. "It's a daily battle, and you can get quite paranoid about it. It's hard keeping your appetite while the body's under stress; it's the first thing that goes, and if you don't fuel enough, you deteriorate and lose time. But I've worked with my nutritionist, Nigel Mitchell, for 10 years now, and he knows how far we can push my body before it breaks down. My Tour weight is 73kg. During the Giro d'Italia in May I was 75kg, and those extra two kilos when I'm climbing mountains equate to two or three minutes an hour, so I know I wouldn't finish at the top with the leaders, but the Tour is the bigger picture. At 73kg, with just under four per cent body fat, by the end of the Tour I'm getting ill. Not anorexic but unhealthy. It gets really cold in the mountains and with next to no body fat you're open to viruses."
If remuneration was in direct proportion to sacrifice, effort and discomfort, it wouldn't be footballers earning £150,000 a week, it would be cyclists. Not that the rewards are inconsiderable for those at the top of the sport, but it's impossible to picture the players at Arsenal, just to mention Wiggins' boyhood favourites, being accommodated in the kind of hotels that are part of life during races such as the Giro or the Tour de France.
I ask him to talk me through his day, the kind of day that will unfold during the Tour. "I get up between eight and nine, then it's straight to the team doctor for a urine test to see if I'm fuelling well enough. Then I get weighed. Then it's breakfast, a bowl of porridge, and our chef does this banana purée thing on top, followed by a ham and cheese omelette, and a couple of coffees. Then back to the room to pack, including the bed. I sleep on the same mattress every night, a memory foam thing, which is another little example of the way Team Sky thinks of everything. Then we get on the bus to go to the start of that day's stage, and have a meeting, going through all the details of the day, the wind direction, the weather forecast..."
When the day's stage is finished it's back to the bus for a shower, and a hefty dish of tuna and rice. "Sometimes we can be in the bus for anything up to three hours. Then back at the hotel I'll have a massage, see the osteopath, have dinner, talk to my wife, and go to bed. It's Groundhog Day, one day turns into the next, and you're oblivious to anything else." A smile. "I'm told that since I have been training we've got a new government at home."
The last time I interviewed Wiggins, he assured me that his first cycling love was, and always would be, the track. It is the track, of course, where he has enjoyed his most notable success, with two Olympic gold medals in Beijing, adding to the one he won in Athens. "But I never imagined I'd become a Tour de France contender," he says. "I honestly thought I was a one-trick pony. Also, I've done everything on the track. I can only, like, do it again. Saying that, the attraction of the London Olympics is massive. Winning another gold there would top everything off."
And if I were to offer him a choice between winning Olympic gold in his own country, indeed his home city, and winning the Tour de France, which would he choose? He doesn't hesitate. "I'd have to say the Tour. This has dominated my life for 12 months. It's taken me to a whole new level of dedication."
Whatever his level of dedication, though, it must surely be impossible to maintain the focus over six hours in the saddle? The mind must drift? "Oh yeah. Some days I've been almost hypothermic. It was so cold on some of the descents of the Giro that I started drifting off, thinking of how my daughter gets into bed with us in the morning, and how warm she is. That kind of keeps you going. Also, we talk quite a lot. There's a big camaraderie, and you build relationships, whether in terms of respect or that 'get out of my way, you're always in my bloody way!' It's like working with the same 200 people every day. There are some you like, and some you don't."
Does he – and please tell me if this is a stupid question – ever simply look round and admire the view? "A lot. All the time. That's the beauty of road-cycling, something swimmers or runners don't have. The view from the top of Mont Ventoux is phenomenal. And it's great having spectators lining the route. Sometimes there's just a wall of sound, and it's nice to hear British voices. On the Col de Colombière last year someone shouted 'Brad, you'll get a knighthood for this'."
Maybe he still will, joining Sir Chris Hoy as a knight of the round inner-tube. Yet Wiggins does not crave recognition like he once did. "When I was younger, I thought I was in it for the credibility. I wanted to be famous, which is why I got so down on myself after Athens, because that's what I'd built it up to be. But my motivation has changed. Now I want to make money, get out of the sport, and become reclusive with my family."
A small sigh. "I know a knighthood is the biggest accolade for a sportsman, and that would be great, but at the end of the day it's just sport, and we can all get carried away with it. I blame the whole football culture. I grew up listening to my grandad talking about Bobby Moore, who became one of my own sporting heroes. He was one of the most grounded sportsmen ever, but the culture now is to put footballers on a pedestal. They moan about it and then they sell their wedding photos. Grounded is the last thing they are, and Beckham kind of started all that. You have to admire those like Ryan Giggs who've managed to stay apart from it."
Wiggins, too, is worthy of great admiration. A chippy character at times, he has metamorphosed into one of his sport's most impressive ambassadors. And yet there are still those who wonder whether his fourth place in last year's Tour was above board.
"The word on the street was that I was doped," he says, equably. "It's easy for them to tarnish you with their brush, especially once you achieve something beyond expectations. No one will ever say it to my face, and there's not a lot I can do about it. We released all my blood readings on the internet, but there will always be doubters. I know I'm clean, but it's a tough area, because as hard as the governing body is fighting it, there are still people out there fighting as hard as possible to find a way round it. Team Sky are working tirelessly to find every little gain in every area, but within the rules, which isn't necessarily the case with some other teams. For me the worst-case scenario is someone beating me to get on the podium, then being tested positive. That's not how I want to get on the podium."
Let us hope, then, that he does so in the best possible way.Reuse content