Cycling: Bradley Wiggins seeks emotional rescue
After his all-conquering 2012 the Tour de France winner is in need of new challenges, with the Giro d'Italia top of the list
For Sir Bradley Wiggins, riding his bike in 2013 is not necessarily about winning the Tour de France again. It's about staying in touch with the reasons he loved the sport in the first place and keeping the pressure to reproduce his runaway success story of the 2012 season at arm's length. As he says: "I don't want to do another year [in 2013] like last year."
Wiggins explains all this on the second-to-last day of the Tour of Oman, his first stage race of the year. In a few typically deft phrases and with disarming honesty – "Here I've been pretty mediocre," he admits – the Sky rider takes apart and analyses each segment of why he is focusing on the second most important Grand Tour, the Giro d'Italia, rather than, for now, Le Tour.
And surprisingly for a leader of a team famous for their ultra-scientific, unsentimental approach, Wiggins reveals "emotion is the baseline". Without it, he says he cannot function as an athlete, and tapping back into his feelings was, post-London 2012, no easy task.
"It took a lot of time for the motivation to come back, and after the Olympics there was a long time where I was thinking what the hell am I going to do here next year," he says.
"In the previous 18 months I had put so much into that Tour project, I knew I wanted to go out and compete at a high level again, [but] I didn't want to retire or go through a 2010 season and fail, and have to deal with that again.
"So I had to find something to inspire me. And the Giro is something I would really love to try and win. It's as big a goal for me as winning the Tour was in 2012."
The logic behind that desire is anything but cold-blooded. Instead, he says the Italian race's appeal dates from when, as a teenager, "the Giro was the only other race that sometimes got broadcast on British TV apart from the Tour".
He recollects watching Andy Hampsten, the American winner of the Giro in 1988, "racing in that [leader's] jersey through the snow, it seemed quite inspirational... I've always had a love-hate relationship with it. In 2010 I swore I'd never go back there it was so hard, but I've always had a soft spot for it."
The second big ingredient behind Wiggins's 2013 programme is based on another feeling: that after what was effectively a four-year build-up to the 2012 Tour win, starting with his breakthrough fourth place in the 2009 Tour, "there was no way I was going through all that again".
He adds: "I didn't want to have that direct comparison all the time with last year. Unless I won all those races again there was only one alternative, and that is to fail, and I wanted to avoid that. I didn't want to put that pressure on myself."
Such was his desire to avoid having his 2013 season held up against 2012 that a ride in the Giro, preceded by a programme of relatively unexplored terrain in other races like the Tour of Catalonia and the Liège-Bastogne-Liège Classic, became almost inevitable. "It was working back from May, establishing the goals and when we hit them we hit them like we did last year," he says.
Yet another factor in the mix is Chris Froome, Sky's designated leader at Oman and keen to chance his arm in the Tour de France. Far from fanning the flames of any latent conflict between himself and his equally ambitious team-mate in their first joint race since the 2012 Tour, Wiggins was reported by other teams to have put in colossal amounts of spadework in the first part of the stages for Froome.
"I don't want to be too self-conscious and say, 'Well, I'm the winner of the 2012 Tour and if I'm not up there [winning] I don't want to race'. It's not just about me in the team," is how Wiggins sees it.
So at the moment, while Froome was donning his first jersey as race leader of the Tour of Oman on Thursday, Wiggins was munching on a plastic bowl of rice in an empty parking lot 200 metres away, all but ignored by the press and joking with some British expat fans how he would be back in the UK this weekend "in time for a Sunday roast".
Looking at how Froome is being groomed for his attempt at the 2013 Tour win – which Wiggins does not rule out for himself, let it be said – the cycling knight says he recognises parallels with himself in 2012.
"For me it was important to lead the races, and I recognised from years before that was something I needed to do in 2012, whereas I'm on a completely different thing this year," he says. "For Chris, again, it's about the rest of the team having confidence in him and he took that leadership role on when we came here, put his hand up and said he would do it, and that's half the battle – accepting that."
As for how this winning races in February fits in with Froome and the Tour, Sky's general manager, Sir Dave Brailsford, who has been present in Oman all week, told The Independent on Sunday that "the obvious thing is that if you want to try and win the biggest race you try and make it business as usual by the time you get there – you don't turn it into an epic. The best thing to do, and this is something we've learned from the earliest days of building towards the Olympics, is treat it as if it's just another bike race."
Wiggins, meanwhile, is as focused on the Giro as Froome is on the Tour. "There's no guarantee I'm going to win it or even be up there," Wiggins concludes. "But it's got enough for me to put everything else aside in my life and go and do it." Words that would strongly suggest Wiggins's emotion-fuelled engine is about to start firing again.
Tour of Oman - final stage: Froome holds on for victory
Last year's Tour de France runner-up, Chris Froome, won the Tour of Oman yesterday, his first overall victory in a stage race, after finishing comfortably in the main pack on the final stage. After assuming the race lead on Thursday, then beating Alberto Contador in the toughest mountain stage on Friday, the Sky rider finished 27 seconds ahead of Contador and 39 seconds up on the 2011 Tour de France winner, Cadel Evans. Yesterday's stage win went to French sprinter, Nacer Bouhanni.
"I did not expect to finish on top of the podium, a top-five placing overall was more of a target, so I'm very pleased," said Froome. "As my first overall win here, to take a victory ahead of so many big names is very important." No less significant, Froome said, had been proving this week to the squad that he was able to deliver as designated team leader.
"It's a big step in my career, I've got new responsibilities in the team and a new role, so this is an excellent way to start the season."
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