Sir Bradley Wiggins’ long ride back to pre-eminence begins tomorrow. The 2012 Tour de France winner had to watch this year as injury and illness prevented him from defending his yellow jersey. In his place another British rider, another star from Team Sky, won the Tour instead.
The rivalry between Wiggins and Chris Froome is one of the great sub-plots of British sport in recent years, and after Wiggins’ historic 2012 – the Tour, Olympic gold and, for what it is worth, Sport Personality of the Year and a knighthood – there is no doubt that this year has belonged to Froome.
But tomorrow the Tour of Poland begins and Wiggins is back, and keen to win. The Team Sky director, Sir David Brailsford, insisted this week that the rider is “very, very motivated and in great shape now”. A good performance would set him up well for a strong finish to the year. The Tour of Poland is a seven-stage race, starting in Rovereto in northern Italy today and ending in Krakow next Saturday. Dominated by Polish riders for years, it is now part of the UCI ProTour.
Success in Poland could provide the impetus that Wiggins needs as he tries to finish 2013 as well as possible. He is unlikely to race in the Vuelta e Espana, the final grand tour of the year, but will compete in the Tour of Britain in September.
The real goal, though, is the World Championships, which take place in Florence in late September. Wiggins, if fit and fully focused, should be a strong competitor for the individual time trial on 25 September, the race at which he won silver in Copenhagen in 2011.
That would be a successful end to a difficult year for Wiggins, in which he has been down on his luck and unable to repeat his remarkable achievements of 2012. It started during the Giro d’Italia, which he was desperate to win, but in which he struggled, and had to pull out after Stage 11 with a chest infection.
Wiggins hoped to be fully fit in time for the Tour de France, but a knee injury meant that he could not compete – clearing the way for Froome to lead Sky’s attempts and win the Tour himself. Wiggins did not appear to be in an obvious rush to congratulate his successor.
Wiggins’ absence spared Sky a difficult decision this summer, but if he recovers fully then Brailsford will have a genuine headache for the next year’s Tour. He would be choosing between two Tour winners and neither would be desperately keen to play a supporting role.
Brailsford said this week that he would “absolutely love to” field Wiggins and Froome together next year and that he “does not spend a nanosecond worrying about whether they get on or not”. It is probably the right approach – the pair are not particularly close.
If it does not work out this autumn, and Wiggins’ position is weakened, then he may even have to pursue his future elsewhere if he wants to win the Tour again. Just as Mark Cavendish had to leave Sky to join Omega Pharma to improve his individual chances, Wiggins may have to look beyond Sky for his future prospects. Cadel Evans will be 37 next summer and had a very difficult tour – he may not be at BMC forever and the American team could well see Wiggins as their replacement.
Of course, it may not come to this and Wiggins could find an agreeable role for himself at Sky next year, which could allow him to fulfil the rest of his ambitions. But it is not certain and he needs to start winning again. The Tour of Poland is the perfect chance.