Bradley Wiggins gave a thin smile, ducked his head to accept the silver medal and then scratched his head. Well he might have. Next to him Tony Martin thrust both arms into the air in triumph before slipping them into the rainbow jersey. There was to be no glorious 2013 salvage job for Wiggins as the German, who rejoices in the nickname Der Panzerwagen, crushed the hopes of the Briton and every other rider in the field with a ride of utter and absolute dominance.
Martin’s winning margin over Wiggins was an emphatic 46 seconds, or several panzer lengths. Wiggins had beaten him by a similar margin to take the gold in the Olympic time trial a year ago but a lot of water has flowed under the Ponte Vecchio since then and Wiggins was happy tip his hat to Martin, who claimed a hat-trick of world titles in the process.
The two are former team-mates. When Martin arrived in the sport he was a stout young man, or “fat” as Wiggins put it. On Wednesday he was not bad for a fat lad. And it was not at all bad for Wiggins either, who feels he has come from “rock bottom” earlier this year to end on a comparative high with victory in the Tour of Britain and a second silver medal in this event.
“There is always a tinge of disappointment because you want to be the world champion but at the same time you have to accept when you are beaten by a better athlete on the day,” said Wiggins after the gruelling 57.9km haul across Tuscany before rolling through the picture perfect streets of Florence, along the River Arno and then a last lung busting sprint for home.
Wiggins has one last race to ride this season, as part of the road race team riding in support of Chris Froome here on Sunday. Whatever unfolds in what will be another tough day, he is left with a silver lining to the most testing year of his career. It was not what he wanted but it was something.
“I feel pretty relieved now it is over and pretty satisfied to come away with a silver medal,” he said. “From where I have come from at the start of June I have come a long way. I won the Tour of Britain and then silver in the worlds in a field that was perhaps one of the best assembled – everyone seems to be on form – so I can look back and be pretty happy with where I have come from.”
It was in June that Wiggins was told he would not ride the Tour de France, completing his “fall from grace” as he put it. “It was hard. I pretty much went back to the drawing board. I trained on my own, going out round Lancashire, stopping off at petrol stations to fill up my bottles, changing my inner tubes when I punctured. It felt like a complete fall of grace. I like that solitude, I like feeling that low. That was kind of the start of the road back, missing the Tour. With all that it was the best thing that ever happened to me, to start right back at the bottom again and realise just how much work it took to get to the top. It’s been a long summer.”
Wiggins was the first of the big three to set off on the longest ever long time-trial course at the world championships. He rode the race firmly to his plan – the crowd noise limited how much he could hear via the radio so he was unaware either of how far ahead Martin was from the midpoint, or how far he had slipped behind Fabian Cancellara, four times a winner of this title. At one point the gap between Cancellara and Wiggins was 24 seconds in the Swiss rider’s favour. But Wiggins grew stronger as the kilometres started to take their toll. Cancellara clipped the curb to disrupt his rhythm and Wiggins reeled him in. The margin between silver and bronze come the end was little more than two seconds from more than an hour in the saddle.
“I didn’t die off and I didn’t speed up, I just held the same speed – like Carl Lewis used to run the 100m,” said Wiggins.
Unfortunately he had Usain Bolt on a bike behind him. There was nothing that could be done about the remarkable Martin, now unquestionably the world’s dominant time trialler. As a young rider in the 2010 Tour, Martin, then still training to be a policeman in between his saddle duties, stunned the peloton by telling Lance Armstrong to “fuck off.” On Wednesday the only expletives were ones of amazement at the 28-year-old’s sustained power. He averaged 53.9kmph over his 65 minutes of riding. Wiggins managed 52.3, marginally more than Cancellara.
Afterwards Wiggins spoke of the agonies of the last 15 minutes, when you are not trying to accelerate merely to keep going. “A world of pain,” he called the final five kilometres. Martin was in a different world. “It was,” he said of the last stretch through Florence, “like a celebratory ride. I almost didn’t feel the pain in the end.”
Alex Dowsett, the other Britain in the field, finished a disappointing 41st. Better news for Britain came with the announcement by the UCI, cycling's governing body who are meeting here this week, that the London Velodrome will host the 2016 track world championships.