The final confirmation is lacking, but it looks increasingly certain that Bradley Wiggins will not defend his 2012 Tour de France title, but will race as a key wingman for Sky team-mate and this year's runner-up, Chris Froome.
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Instead, Wiggins will concentrate on the Giro d'Italia, cycling's second biggest stage race. "It's more than likely I'll ride in a supporting role for Chris," Wiggins said at the presentation of the Tour's centenary edition 2013 route in Paris yesterday. "It was always about winning one Tour de France. I've done it and I'm very proud the way I did it. I want to be in a successful team and if that's Chris [as leader] then so be it.
"My priority is the Giro d'Italia. It's become apparent that it's very difficult to compete in two grand tours and so it's very likely I'll be there [in the Tour] in a helping capacity."
Wiggins (below) did insist – jokingly – that "he [Froome] will have to grow to some sideburns though", a reference to his own trademark muttonchops that became a familiar sight to British sports fans this year as Team Sky took a stranglehold on the Tour barely a week into the 21-day race.
Wiggins' supremacy last July was such that it will be hard to imagine a switch in roles for the British duo between team leader and domestique de luxe, as cycling calls the top "helper", but it would boost both Wiggins' personal ambition and Sky's chance of a repeat victory.
Should Wiggins win in the three-week Italian race – which he led for one day in 2010 – it would be a first for Great Britain. The inclusion in the Giro next year of a 53km individual time trial – unusually long for the Italian race and Wiggins' strongest suit – makes it even more attractive for him. Racing the Giro flat out, though, would make it almost impossible for the Londoner to dispute the Tour de France a month later.
Alberto Contador, cycling's top stage racer, was the last to try, last year. He won the Giro, but finished fifth in the Tour. Other Grand Tour winners, such as Cadel Evans and Denis Menchov, have tried the double and failed even more dismally.
Hence the increasing likelihood that Froome, rather than Wiggins, will step up in the 2013 Tour, and after the route for next July was revealed yesterday it became increasingly probable.
Unlike this year's Tour, which had more than 100km of the flat individual time trialling in which Wiggins excels, the 2013 race will have just 65km, half of it extremely hilly. He was comfortably in the lead by the final time trial outside Paris this year, which became a trump card he did not need to play: in 2013 he would not have that extra card up his sleeve.
Significant too, is the huge slab of mountain climbing in the last 10 days compared to this year. This starts with the Mont Ventoux, rated by many as the toughest single ascent in France. It continues with a double climb of the infamous Alpe d'Huez, scene of many a decisive Tour duel, to the point it is frequently claimed whoever wears yellow at the Alpe's summit will wear the same colour in Paris.
Wiggins' ability on steady, mammoth Pyrenean and Alpine climbs is beyond question, and would be invaluable to Froome. But – and it is a big but – his ability to respond to sudden, darting attacks on the steepest climbs like the Alpe d'Huez has never been truly tested. While not so much of a time-trialling thoroughbred as Wiggins, Froome is as good at doling out such sudden mountain charges as he is at countering them. Hence, he is a better option for victory.
Contador agreed that the reversal would be good for Sky by describing the Kenyan-born Froome as "the most dangerous rival for me." The Spaniard – twice a Tour winner – told The Independent: "It's Froome I fear the most. He's very dangerous in the mountains and he was the strongest climber this year."
Contador insisted Wiggins' Tour victory and superb 2012 season made him a contender. But there was little doubt that he sees Froome as cycling's coming man. Resolving this issue – and justifying it should Wiggins fail in the Giro or Froome in the Tour – will not be easy for Sky.
Another Briton's task in next year's Tour is very straightforward, however. Mark Cavendish, in his new Omega Pharma squad, will have the opportunity to wear the leader's yellow jersey thanks to a flat opening stage – the tour's first since 1966. To have that chance in the centenary Tour can only make it more attractive.
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