When Irish Tour de France winner Stephen Roche was asked earlier this month about what the consequences of Sir Bradley Wiggins doing the Giro d’Italia would be on any hypothetical attempt on the Tour de France by the Londoner, he said: “A lot will depend on whether Bradley can win the Giro. If he doesn’t, it will change everything. If he doesn’t win the Giro, he’ll want to win the Tour at any cost.”
As Wiggins’ Giro bid dissolved in a streaming head cold and chest infection that saw the Briton fail to take the stage 13 start, he did not state what his objectives for the rest of 2013 will be. The external pressure on the 33-year-old for a repeat victory in the Tour de France to “save his season” had not yet begun either. Yet, after such a disappointing Giro d’Italia, that pressure will surely come. And with Chris Froome now named Tour leader for Team Sky, it could be more intense than in 2012.
That is not the only added challenge for Wiggins. In 2012, pre-Tour Wiggins had what former cycling great Chris Boardman used to call “insurance” victories – wins in almost equally prestigious events – in spades: Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie, the Criterium du Dauphiné. In fact, had his season stopped prior to the double of Tour de France and Olympic time trial, it would have been one for which 99 per cent of bike riders would have willingly signed up.
This time round, though, Wiggins, pre-Giro, has had zero victories. Eclipsed by Froome ever since their stage-race joint debut at the Tour of Oman, where he finished 74th to Froome’s first, he has had near misses in the Volta a Catalunya – fifth – and the Giro di Trentino – fourth.
Sky’s reasoning was that he would be better off missing the previous year’s races to avoid comparisons. Instead, with nothing to show for 2013 despite his clearly strong form – he was second in the exceptionally difficult Giro time trial just five days ago, before his illness kicked in – the comparison has to be made between one season, 2013 and another, 2012. And the difference, and corresponding level of expectation post-2012, particularly in a year when The Independent understands Wiggins’ Sky contract is due to end, could hardly be greater.
It cannot be over-emphasised that Wiggins’ physical fitness is not to blame for his dismal 2013 so far. As Sky manager, Sir Dave Brailsford, put it, his early exit from the Giro “is not about fitness, it’s about sickness” – not to mention a slew of bad luck that stalked Wiggins as the race headed south from Naples and never let up. Stage seven’s downhill crash and 86-second time loss was nobody’s fault, and the same went for the puncture on stage eight that saw him miss out on victory in the time trial by 10 seconds.
As for catching the severe cold and chest infection that became a knock-out blow, the rain which has barely left the race since stage four is hardly Wiggins’ fault. And his exceptional thinness when in form, with body fat down to the barest healthy minimum and team-mates joking they could see through his arms, leaves him particularly vulnerable to the cold weather he reputedly detests.
Yet abandoning the Giro puts Wiggins in a position where, with no Olympic Games and – perhaps – no “insurance wins” prior to July, he will almost certainly have to shove all his chips on to one square: the Tour de France. And this year, with the return of top rivals like Alberto Contador, cycling’s best stage racer, plus a far harder route for him and his failure to hit the Giro bullseye, the Tour could well be an even harder challenge than it was last year.
The tension between Sky’s top names could become greater as a result. And Froome will need no reminding that the last time Wiggins abandoned a Grand Tour – the Tour de France in 2011 with a crash – he came back with all guns blazing in the Vuelta a España in the autumn, in which Wiggins finished third and Froome second.
This time round, Wiggins said, pre-Giro, that he thought that the two might co-lead in the Tour. That idea was once again roundly denied by Sky last week – as it has been since February – with Brailsford insisting that Froome was the designated leader.
Now, however, it remains to be seen if Britain’s most decorated road racer will still accept that hierachy, or if, as Roche’s comments seemed to suggest, Wiggins will want to tear up the script and go all out for a second crack at Tour glory.