Bradley Wiggins – the “Sir” would arrive later – stood on the victory podium at the end of the 2012 Tour de France and with one of those quips that have so endeared him to the British public announced that “we’re just going to draw the raffle numbers”.
On Friday it was Wiggins’s number that was up, but not in a good way. The style icon and people’s champion from north London whose Tour victory was the first ever by a Briton will be glaringly absent when the 2013 race gets under way in Corsica four weeks today, forced out with a knee injury.
The subject line in the email that went out from Wiggins’s Sky team – “UPDATE: SIR BRADLEY WIGGINS” – barely hinted at the bombshell news it contained. But such is Wiggins’s status within the team, the cycling fraternity, and indeed the wider populace, that a certain gravity was called for.
The Tour without a title-holder as charismatic as Wiggins is immeasurably the poorer, and for his army of fans – the people who voted him the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year against the stiffest competition in the award’s history – it was a day of shock and sadness.
Perhaps not total shock. Wiggins’s problems became apparent when he pulled out of the Giro d’Italia a fortnight ago suffering from a chest infection and a knee injury, and although he has recovered from the former, the latter has persisted. His withdrawal was a bitter blow because – Sky’s internal politics allowing – Wiggins had been targeting the rare double of the Giro and Tour in the same year. Now, instead of both, it is neither.
“With illness, injury and treatment Brad has gone past the point where he can be ready for the Tour,” team principal Sir Dave Brailsford said. “It’s a big loss but, given these circumstances, we won’t consider him for selection.”
Wiggins himself said: “It’s a huge disappointment not to make the Tour. I desperately wanted be there, for the team and for all the fans along the way – but it’s not going to happen. I can’t train the way I need to train and I’m not going to be ready. Once you accept that, it’s almost a relief not having to worry about the injury and the race against time.”
For Sky, the one compensation in Wiggins’s non-participation is that it brings to an end the months-long tension over which of its two star riders – Wiggins and Chris Froome, runner-up in the 2012 Tour – should lead the team. There was something of a stand-off between the two, with Wiggins reluctant to cede his No 1 position to the younger man. With Froome now unchallenged in that role, all eyes will be on whether he can make it successive British Tour victories.
Wiggins’s chances of scaling previous heights must now be in doubt. Brailsford said he was “a champion, a formidable athlete and will come back winning as he has before”, but at 33, he is five years beyond the average age for Tour winners, and healthy knees are essential for a cyclist to be able to perform. Is Wiggins destined to be a one-Tour-only winner? Either way his place in the British sporting pantheon is for ever assured.