Bradley Wiggins' most important test run for the 2012 combination of the Tour de France – which, inspired by the example of this year's victor Cadel Evans, he now thinks he can win – and the Olympic time trial starts today in the Tour of Spain.
For Wiggins, the Tour of Spain is both a substitute for the 2011 Tour de France, which he crashed out of with a broken collarbone while in the form of his life, and a vital test run for his twin objectives of 2012: the Tour de France and the Olympic Games.
"I believe more, now than ever, that I can win the Tour de France," Wiggins told The Independent. "In fact, I never believed that before."
Looking at Cadel Evans' example – as well as the Australian's role-model status in the fight against doping – the Londoner says, has pushed him to raise the bar.
"The way he fought throughout, day in, day out in the Tour and through his career as well, keeping on fighting, it gives hope for all of us."
Looking at the Tour's overall classification in general, one could well reflect that "the sport is really cleaning itself up", says Wiggins, which is something that could be crucial for the Londoner's chances, given he has always been on the front line of the anti-doping struggle – "and everyone says I could have been up there."
Wiggins said: "That [winning the Tour] is my goal now. That's what gets me going. So we'll come back next year and do it again. If they said to me all year in 2012, 'Just prepare for the team pursuit', that wouldn't inspire me in the same way."
Wiggins' same all-out attitude goes both for the Olympic time trial which – together with the World Championships – has felt like the private property of Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara for years. The Londoner now also firmly believes both are within reach.
"Fabian has set the benchmark, but he hasn't been the same Cancellara this year as others and I beat him once [in the Tour of Bayern in May].
"It's a bit like going under four minutes with the team pursuit, you do it once and your confidence rises, and and the power output I'm averaging now, it's put me in the ballpark to win it [the Olympic time trial] now. He is the best in the world, but on certain days I think I can beat him. I'm closing the gap."
Wiggins' trial run for France and London next summer – in the Tour of Spain, followed by the World Championships – kicks off in the most unlikely of surroundings here today: sun-drenched Benidorm, surrounded by hordes of British tourists with their mind on anything but cycling.
"It's funny, this start doesn't feel like a Grand Tour, but I like it," Wiggins muses in the foyer of a hotel where the sunloungers in the garden stretch almost as far as the eye can see.
"I mean, I've just seen somebody walk past in their rubber ring. The riders [rivals] are in such different shapes here too, I was talking to one big-name rider the other day and he said, 'I'm just here for holiday'."
"So even if it's equally difficult in terms of the racing as the Tour, on paper when you look at the Tour of Spain the general classification has not got the same strength in depth."
Also the pressure, at least from the media, is far lower: for example, at Sky's Tour de France pre-press meeting, the hacks were there in their hundreds; in the Tour of Spain build-up Wiggins does two face-to-face interviews.
Through his white T-shirt, the outline of the massive scar left from the operation on his collarbone remains visible, but Wiggins needs no reminding – the plans to go for the Tour of Spain, he says, were in place almost from the moment the crash happened.
"I was lying in the hospital bed, the night of the crash, and literally planning this," he says, "to be here and then on to the worlds.
"The World Championships have always been there, but there's not the 10-week gap there would have been if I'd done the Tour – and as a result I have never been so fresh at this stage in the season.
"In fact, this whole period from the crash through to now has been like a giant wake-up call as to what I can do in major Tours. I'm really motivated."
He has worked, too, on improving some of his weak points, such as riding in the hot temperatures expected in the Tour of Spain. Imitating preparation techniques used by British riders in the 2008 Olympics, Wiggins placed five heaters and a humidifier in his garden shed so he could train on the rollers at temperatures of over 40C – "you can ride for about 90 minutes before you pass out, literally" he says, slightly disturbingly.
"My condition is as good, and after everything I've done, I'm pretty much identical to going into the Tour, which is encouraging. I'm pretty convinced I can do something special here. I've really held form and worked on everything. This period, really, is just massive for me now. It's like a whole new season is starting."
Even more than in July, perhaps, his Spanish ambitions are even clearer: a top-six place in Madrid – "although the podium would be a dream" – followed by the time trial of his life in the World Championships next month. And from there on, only the Tour and Olympics will matter.
Cavendish's chance to make history
Yet another British record is in Mark Cavendish's sights in this year's Tour of Spain which starts today: to become the country's first winner of stages in all three Grand Tours in the same year.
Just three riders have managed to pull off the so-called "Grand Slam", and the last to do so was the Italian veteran fastman Alessandro Petacchi – one of Cavendish's most persistent rivals – back in 2003.
Cavendish's first opportunity will come tomorrow, in a slightly rising sprint finish in the streets of Orihuela.
Before then, though, both Cavendish and Wiggins will have an opportunity to lead the race outright should either Sky or Cavendish's HTC-Highroad squad take today's opening team time trial in Benidorm.Reuse content