Bradley Wiggins rides into Paris this afternoon with England's best ever finish in the Tour de France – fourth – securely stowed away in his race jersey. The Londoner cracked but did not collapse completely on yesterday's interminable assault on the Mont Ventoux climb, finishing 10th on the stage won by Spaniard Juan Manuel Garate.
And while another Spaniard – Alberto Contador – will be crowned the overall winner this afternoon on the Champs-Elysées, Wiggins' fourth place has its own enormous value.
British rides of this calibre are few and far between in major stage racing, let alone the Tour. The Garmin-Slipstream rider's result equals that of Scotland's Robert Millar in Paris in 1984, and is two better than the highest ever taken by his English predecessor, Tom Simpson, who finished sixth in 1962.
Wiggins rode up the Ventoux with a picture of Simpson, who died on the same climb during the 1967 Tour, glued to his bike frame, because, he said before the stage, "if ever there's a moment that I feel like giving up, then there's a reason not to – out of respect to him".
By sheer coincidence, Wiggins' worst – and best – moment came close to the monument to Simpson on the climb, after a blizzard of attacks by Contador's most persistent rival, Andy Schleck of Luxembourg.
On a day when most of the favourites preferred to play a conservative game, with a strong wind discouraging aggressive tactics, Schleck was the only rider to try to split the front group apart.
The Team Saxo Bank rider charged away no less than seven times on the 21km climb before Wiggins started to cave in, and even then it was only a very gradual process. The 29-year-old could just respond to the eighth, sliding backwards and then edging closer to the last rider in the half-dozen strong line of favourites ahead.
The ninth assault by Schleck created an identical scenario: a gap briefly opened on the blinding white scree slopes between Wiggins and the rest, and then the Briton clawed his way, inch by inch, back into contention.
Only the third charge by Schleck – all of them designed to help his brother and team-mate, Frank, oust Wiggins from the top five placings – proved too much for the Briton.
A hundred metres behind the group, Wiggins bowed his head as if accepting the inevitable, his shoulders sagging slightly, but his steady pace showed that this was a slight defeat only, and by no means a total rout. Wiggins finally crossed the line 20 seconds behind Frank Schleck – his last-ditch effort had kept him in fourth by just three seconds. Writing on his Twitter page afterwards, Wiggins said: "I shed a tear today for Tom [Simpson], I had a little extra strength from somewhere."
In a situation where the stakes could not have been higher nor the climb more difficult – Lance Armstrong describes the Ventoux as the most difficult in Europe – courage and keeping a cool head made up for Wiggins' almost total inexperience in this sort of situation. Preferring to take things at his own pace rather than chasing after each attack and then cracking at so many changes of rhythm was probably key to his success.
As for Armstrong, four years after his last Tour de France victory, and nine months after he announced his comeback, the American will stand on the Paris podium again, in third place behind Astana team-mate Contador and Andy Schleck. Since the start in Monaco, a passionate, bitter rivalry has developed between the Texan and Contador, which was only really resolved in the Spaniard's favour when the race reached the Alps and Contador took his first mountain-top stage win, at Verbier.
As if trying to win the hardest sporting event on the planet was not enough, Contador finally abandoned his usual discretion slightly yesterday to reveal that inside the team it had been "a difficult time as well". "It just doesn't work to have two guys in the same squad going for the overall win. But I couldn't leave the team because I had signed a contract."
And asked if his team manager Johan Bruyneel, an old ally of Armstrong's, would have preferred the American to take an eighth Tour victory, Contador smiled, took a deep breath and said: "Good question. Ask Johan."
As for Armstrong, he recognised it had been a remarkable comeback for a 37-year-old. "I can't complain," he said, "for an old fart like me... getting on the podium, that's not so bad."
Armstrong's result makes him the oldest top-three finisher since Raymond Poulidor, aged 40, finished third in 1976. If Armstrong's achievement comes close to breaking a record, and Wiggins has smashed through an English one, Mark Cavendish could be responsible for breaking a third.
If he wins the final stage today, he will become the first sprinter ever to take more than five victories in a single Tour.Reuse content