When Bradley Wiggins describes the last eight weeks of his life as "one big rollercoaster", you can't help but agree. From the depths of early July – when he broke his collarbone in the Tour de France, thus destroying his hopes of winning that race – Wiggins has endured weeks of solitary training and slow recovery in the lead up to the Tour of Spain, a race in which he lies third, having led until Sunday despite never having planned to take part.
Wiggins lost the lead on the Angliru, a climb so terrifyingly steep that when it rains – which it didn't, fortunately, on Sunday – more than half the bunch has to get off in places and walk. But Wiggins is still third, at less than a minute behind Juan Jose Cobo, the race leader. With team-mate Chris Froome second at 20 seconds back, the battle for the Vuelta is by no means over.
Come what may, Wiggins says that the Tour of Spain has represented a breakthrough, and such a big one that, long-term, he now believes crashing out of the Tour could actually be hugely beneficial – particularly when it comes to climbing, until now his weakest suit. "It's odd to say, but that crash may end up being the biggest blessing in disguise I've ever had," Wiggins says.
"The Vuelta has been a huge step up, it's gone far beyond my expectations of what I believed possible. I'm more realistic than ever about what I can achieve. There's no more 'can he, can't he?' about my Tour de France chances. And it's not just me. When a guy like [Vincenzo] Nibali [the Tour of Spain winner in 2010] says I'm one of his biggest rivals, that's a huge sign of respect from my peers."
As Wiggins points out, this year's Tour of Spain has not been the sort of race in which a rider regarded as a time-trialling specialist could have expected to shine, especially given the six summit finishes. But it's been on the climbs where he's really impressed.
"Yesterday [Sunday] was the climb I feared the most, and it's the hardest summit finish that European cycling can offer. You might get something as difficult in the Tour of Columbia but not here," he says. "But I only lost time to four guys. I'd never have expected to distance people like Nibali and [Spanish climbing expert] Joaquim Rodriguez.
"If there was ever a route designed for me not to win on, it was this one. But the climbing is where the breakthrough has come. If you compare it with the Dauphiné" – France's biggest warm-up race for the Tour which Wiggins won back in June, fuelling speculation he was in the form of his life for this summer – "this is much more important. I basically won the Dauphiné off the back of the time trial and limiting my losses on the climbs, which is what you'd expect.
"Here it's been on the climbs where I've opened up the gaps. And in fact my one mistake of the race so far has been in the one time trial, where I went too hard, too early."
After four summit finishes where Wiggins gained time, though, the Angliru proved to be a mountain top too far. And after punching above his weight for so long, Wiggins could only be disappointed by what happened on Sunday – even if in the long-term the Tour of Spain could not be more promising. "I feel massively deflated by that defeat and losing the jersey, particularly after the team time trial where we had such a disastrous start to the race, which meant we were coming from so far back," he says. "This race has been a big rollercoaster, a week ago me and Chris were both 1min 48sec down and if you'd told us this was where we'd be now I wouldn't have believed you."
For the Londoner, his central philosophy as a rider – something he rarely, if ever, has discussed before – is living for glory for the moment. "I'll reflect on the experience when I get home, I'll put it into context, but we're athletes, we live for the here and now too – and that's probably what makes us great bike riders."
In any case, although the Angliru was a setback, Wiggins and Froome could yet turn it round between here and Madrid – Wednesday's final summit finish being one crunch moment, the hilly stage to Bilbao on Friday another. Beyond the Vuelta, too, lies the World Championships time trial, another priority in 2011: Wiggins' rollercoaster ride this season, in fact, is far from over.
* Britain's most experienced Grand Tour stage racer of recent times, Charly Wegelius, announced yesterday he is retiring after 11 years as a pro. Based in Italy and with more than ten major Tours under his belt – he was top British finisher at the Tour de France in 2007 – Wegelius never won a race, but he was a hugely valued "domestique" or team worker.
Cavendish to tour britain
Mark Cavendish has been confirmed as a participant in this year's Tour of Britain. The Manxman, winner of the green jersey in the Tour de France, will compete in the race which starts on Saturday in the Scottish Borders. "Mark's addition to the start list will ensure that the sprints are hotly contested," said race director Mick Bennett.Reuse content