For the second year in a row, Sir Bradley Wiggins used the Friends Life Tour of Britain to salvage a measure of redemption from a miserable season.
Trailing by 47 seconds going into the final stage to Dylan van Baarle of Garmin-Sharp, the most surprising package of what has been a consistently fascinating race, Wiggins lowered his head both figuratively and metaphorically to churn to time-trial victory in central London on Sunday.
It was not enough to claim the leader’s yellow jersey – but then with just 8.8 km against the clock, winning the overall classification was never a realistic aim.
Wiggins’ ride moved him up to third overall behind Michal Kwiatkowski of Omega Pharma-Quickstep and the unheralded Van Baarle, who held the Pole off to defend the lead he won on Saturday in Brighton by 10 seconds.
“I knew it would be tough to defend my jersey in the time trial against Kwiatkowski and Wiggins,” said Van Baarle, who admitted he “did not quite know what was happening.”
Wiggins, the 2012 Tour de France winner, has struggled at times through the past week on a course as unsuited to his steady style as last year’s was tailored to it.
“With how hard the race has been this year and the pattern of the race, with time bonuses and the way that the peloton’s raced, it’s been quite tough. It hasn’t favoured me with the way I race and the style I race,” Wiggins said.
He began the time-trial course between Whitehall and Tower Hill and back strongly, and by the halfway point had a gap of five seconds on the Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel. That had increased to eight by the end – a positive sign ahead of this month’s World Championships time trial in Ponferrada, Spain.
Wiggins added: “It confirms I am in the shape I thought I was going into the Worlds next week.”
He rode to silver in last year’s Worlds time trial to add to his Tour of Britain victory, glossing over a troublesome summer in which he was left out of Sky’s Tour de France squad. The symmetry is hard to ignore. Victory in London on Sunday went some way to resurrecting a season during which Chris Froome, despite his own troubles, has once again played first violin to Wiggins’ rusty bassoon.
While Froome ran Alberto Contador to the wire in the glamorous white heat of the Vuelta, Wiggins was stuck back on domestic duty.
Not that this year’s Tour of Britain has been a soft or boring touch. The lead changed wheels six times in seven days – a far cry from the days when the race was regarded as a provincial oddity by top professionals compared to the more arduous challenges on the continent.
“Most people say it’s the hardest race they’ve done all year,” Wiggins said.
A tricky race had an appropriately tricky end. Stage eight was split into two, in an archaic nod to the Grand Tours of the 1980s, with the morning’s time trial followed by an 88.8 km dash around the same course in the afternoon.
The latter half, 10 laps of the time-trial course down Whitehall and up the Embankment boiled down into a drawn-out brawl between the sprinters’ teams – and a straight-up fight between Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel.
Cavendish has had his own problems this year, with life in Kittel’s shadow compounded by a crash on the first stage of the Tour de France in Yorkshire that ruled him out of the rest of the race.
That was followed by a bizarre incident in Liverpool on stage one of this year’s Tour of Britain last Sunday when the Manxman rode into the back of a team car, suffering significant bruising to his left leg.
For the umpteenth time in the last two years, it was the immaculately coiffured German sprinter who on Sunday crumpled Cavendish’s dreams, pipping him on the line to take the final victory.
This was Van Baarle’s race but Wiggins’ day. His future at Sky remains shrouded in uncertainty – “I’ve got meetings next week” were his guarded words on the matter – but here was an enduring reminder of the talent Sky have been missing since 2012 and may yet relinquish altogether.Reuse content