Alasdair Fotheringham: Wiggins probably can't win the Tour but top-three finish is now realistic
Wiggins won not by crushing his rivals but in chasing down the most dangerous attacks
Six weeks from now, we might look back on yesterday as a crucial moment. Should Bradley Wiggins stand on the Tour de France podium in Paris – becoming the first Briton to finish in the event's top three - it will be remembered that the first signs that the Londoner could hit road cycling's jackpot appeared over these last eight days in France.
Wiggins's victory in the Critérium du Dauphiné stage race yesterday is not his first major success with British team Sky – that was the prologue of the Giro d'Italia last year – but whereas short time trials like those in the Giro have always been Wiggins' speciality, overall victory in the Dauphiné represents an enormous step forward for his Tour aspirations.
The history of past winners is one indication of the race's importance in its own right: Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong. Regardless of what happens, Wiggins now forms part of an illustrious roll of honour. But it's equally significant that the last British rider to win the Dauphiné was Tour contender Robert Millar in 1990, and that the only Englishman to do so was Brian Robinson – Britain's pioneer in the Tour de France – back in 1961.
Wiggins already has gone further than any other Briton apart from Millar by equalling the Scot's fourth place overall from 1984 in the 2009 Tour. But what makes his Dauphiné ride so intriguing is that two years ago, with less than a month before the Tour start, Wiggins was nowhere near in such good shape.
The Alps were precisely where Wiggins fell off the wagon in last year's Tour de France, too. This time round, though, his climbing in the same mountains – perhaps helped by prolonged periods of altitude training rather than flooring himself in the Giro, as he did last year – has vastly improved.
Equally encouraging is the way Wiggins has won the Dauphiné, which has not been by crushing his rivals. Instead, he moved into the overall lead in the midweek time trial, then selected the most dangerous attacks and chased them down. Not particularly pretty as a racing style goes, but effective and – crucially – economical, too.
Like every Tour contender will tell you, the aim is to be peaking in early June in order to hit top condition in July. Wiggins, who has won by using his head as much as his legs, looks to have got that spot on.
Equally, his team, Sky, have showed they are more than up to the task of defending a Tour leadership, protecting him on the flat, guiding him up at least two-thirds of the way up the final climb and – equally importantly – ensuring he regained contact after missing out on a bunch split on stage two.
What is to stop Wiggins taking the Tour's overall lead? Alberto Contador (who confirmed his participation on Saturday) and Andy Schleck, who have taken the top two spots in 2009 and 2010, are the two largest obstacles.
There are plenty of other factors that could trouble him: the Tour is two weeks longer than the Dauphiné, the competition is far fiercer and the huge rise in expectation caused by yesterday's success will renew the pressure on Wiggins, something he has not always responded to well in the past.
The good news, though, is that just like in 2009, thanks to the Dauphiné, Wiggins now has to be considered a candidate for the third place on the podium, should everything go according to plan, which is in turn a big ask. But yesterday's result proved that sometimes, as Wiggins' director at Sky Dave Brailsford likes to say, the planets really can all line up for you.
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