Cycling: How will Sky stop Olympics wrecking 2012 Tour campaign?
With Wiggins chasing gold in London, UK team need new strategy to continue this year's progress
One of the big appeals of an annual sporting event like the Tour is that even as they were clearing away the barriers from the finish on the Champs-Elysées here in Paris yesterday, speculation was already rising as to the route and the contenders for 2012.
The podium of the Schleck brothers and winner Cadel Evans will be back for sure, as will others such as Alberto Contador, who has left Paris swearing he will never again repeat the Giro d'Italia-Tour double that partly wrecked his chances over the last three weeks.
But what of Bradley Wiggins, last seen on the Tour de France roads during stage eight as he wandered dizzily through a battlefield of broken bikes and fallen riders with a smashed collarbone? Sadly, if Sky's sports director Sean Yates's calculations are anything to go by, Wiggins probably won't be there – and neither will Geraint Thomas, or even possibly Ben Swift, three of the team's top players in this year's race.
According to Yates, doing the Tour-Olympic double in 2012 is not feasible, and with the team pursuit in London just 10 days after the Tour finishes, they are too close together to make doing both possible.
"I can't see how it would happen," Yates says. "It's not up to me, but if you're doing the Olympics, then I don't see how riding the Tour is ideal."
The conventional wisdom is that while doing a major Tour is good for team pursuit riders as it increases overall endurance – as Wiggins and Thomas both did in 2008, taking part in the Giro d'Italia before going on to gold in the pursuit in Beijing – there has to be enough of a margin for riders to adapt to the track afterwards.
Regrettably next year, that margin isn't there, meaning that any Sky rider aiming at the track will almost certainly have to decide shun the Tour.
British Cycling's Dave Brailsford, who is also Sky's team principal, has said that the Olympics will take priority. But after Sky's superb Tour de France, the pressure for them to field their best of British next summer in cycling's top race will also be strong. According to Yates, though, thanks to London 2012, that's not going to be possible.
"If the Olympics were one month or six weeks after [the Tour], you'd have time to do a bit of track work, but [with 10 days] there's not enough time to ease back and come up to form like you should," Yates says. "I can't see how that'd happen. I can't see it being an option. It's a tricky one and it doesn't just apply to the UK boys. There are riders from other countries on the team who may be doing the Olympics as well. That could scupper their Tour in a way, too."
For Mark Cavendish – not a Sky rider, although there are suggestions he will be joining in 2012 – there is no such issue despite his event, the Olympic road race, being just six days after the Tour ends next year on 21 July. Track racers face very different physical demands to "roadies", and Cavendish will be back on familiar terrain in London. Tiredness could be a factor, but Sunday's stage win on the Champs-Elysées was more than ample proof of how beneficial the Tour can be to his underlying form.
Cavendish did abandon the 2008 Tour to go to the Olympics, but he swore he would never do so again, and, according to Yates, in any case "pulling out of the Tour isn't an option".
But for Wiggins and the rest, the lure of London 2012 could be too great for them to risk it with the Tour de France, particularly as the Tour is an annual event. "It's not up to me, but if you've got a chance of a gold medal in your own country in the Olympics, it is a massive once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Yates says.
And if Wiggins may well not be present when the Tour begins in Liège on 30 June next year – with a prologue that would be right up his street – then it would be a pity, given how his team have improved so dramatically this season in the Tour.
"We didn't underperform that much in 2010, overall, although Bradley didn't quite live up to all the expectations and hype," Yates says.
"The guys were still working in the sprints last year, and they were there in breaks too. But a successful Tour means a jersey, it means stage wins and the podium, and this year we've got the results to show it."
It could have been even more, had Colombian Rigoberto Uran and – according to other sources – some of the rest of the team not got sick in the last week, just when Uran seemed to be in line for taking the white jersey for the best young rider. But, for now, the team's first podium finish in Paris will have to wait.
"The last three days have been quite tough for the boys," Yates adds, "but the good thing is that, come what may, everybody has risen to the occasion."
Next year, though, with London 2012 dwarfing even the Tour de France, it may well be tougher for Sky to perform in the Tour, although the possible signing of Cavendish, of course, could well ease the pressure on the rest of the team.
But for now, although Cavendish may well come flying down the Champs-Elysées as brilliantly in 2012 as he has done for the last three years, there is no indication of what colours he will be wearing when he does so. And with the barriers for the Olympics going up in London just as they come down here in Paris, Sky's short-term Tour future could be equally unpredictable, too.
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