The ink barely had time to dry on Bradley Wiggins' signature for Team Sky late on Wednesday evening before the floodgates of speculation had opened over the implications of his dramatic last-minute transfer.
Racing for the Garmin-Slipstream team, Wiggins finished fourth in the Tour de France last July, equalling Britain's previous best in the race by Robert Millar in 1984. The result was a massive advance for the Londoner, given his only previous finish in the Tour was 123rd in 2006.
For a minority sport in Britain like cycling, Wiggins top-five placing was an equally huge step forward in the battle for wider recognition. To have him fighting for the Tour podium next summer as leader of the country's biggest ever professional squad will almost certainly continue the process.
It is true that Mark Cavendish's almost unstoppable succession of Tour de France stage wins – six in 2009, four the previous year – had already sparked greater interest in cycling's premier road event. But while Cavendish's success is strictly on the flatter stages, thanks to Wiggins for the first time in two decades Britain also became a factor in the Tour's decisive phases: the mountains.
Wiggins was in a favourable position before his historic ride last July. As a triple Olympic champion, he was already a household name. After the Tour, as the 29-year-old found at the Tour of Britain in September, the number of "Wiggo" fans had doubled. Usually a fairly low-key event, at stage finishes Wiggins was surprised, and quietly delighted, to be mobbed by autograph hunters on home ground.
"There's been a massive increase in numbers of people getting on their bikes," Wiggins said yesterday. "That's partly because of the Olympics but also myself and Mark Cavendish have had an effect."
For British cycling Wiggins' transfer to Sky is sure to be beneficial. But the real proof of whether he has made the right move is if Wiggins can make it onto the Tour podium next year, or even become Britain's first Tour winner.
Speaking earlier this year, double Tour de France champion Alberto Contador refused to rule out Wiggins chances of taking yellow in Paris. "At 29, Bradley's certainly got a margin for progression, though perhaps not as much as me," Contador said. "And if he's going for the podium, I don't see why he can't go for the overall win."
Contador's first reaction on hearing of Wiggins transfer was that the British rider was going to be at least as much of a threat as before. "For me to think anything else would be a serious mistake," he said yesterday. "He'll be equally dangerous, just as much of a rival as before."
It is intriguing that while one British star – Wiggins – has proved so keen to join Sky, another – Cavendish – has been adamant he will not, at least for the moment, consider quitting his current outfit, Columbia-HTC. Cavendish's reasoning is straightforward. He has stated time and again that he feels he has the best team in the world for his speciality, sprinting, and that his results would not improve elsewhere.
"We wouldn't be in competitive sport if we didn't think we could win," Sky's team principal Dave Brailsford said. "But we're not saying 'we're going to do it' or anything along those lines. We'll control the controllables and see what is possible."
Among those "controllables", and one of the reasons why Wiggins was so keen to sign with Sky, is the team's full access to the British Cycling staff, who have helped develop his career since junior days.
Prior to Wiggins signing on Wednesday, Sky did look as if they would be far more reliant on foreign riders for their results. Apart from Wiggins, up-and-coming Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen is the best-known name. The 22-year-old won no less than 14 races last year, including four stages, the overall title at the Tour of Britain, a stage at the Tour of Italy and one of the biggest one-day races on the calendar, Ghent-Wevelgem.
However, it was uncertain whether Sky's roster would have been powerful enough to gain them an invitation to the 2010 Tour, where 27 teams are currently gunning for 22 places. Three of their riders, Australian Simon Gerrans, Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha and Norwegian Kurt-Asle Arvesen have won Tour stages in the past. But there was no clear overall Tour contender, until they signed Wiggins.
Pendleton aims to seize 'opportunity' in 2012 shake-up
Victoria Pendleton has said she is excited by yesterday's overhaul of the Olympic track cycling programme. The International Olympic Committee in Lausanne ratified changes to Olympic track cycling in order to achieve gender parity.
London 2012 will feature five men's and five women's events. The men's and women's individual pursuits – in which Bradley Wiggins and Rebecca Romero are Olympic champions – points races and the men's Madison are to disappear in favour of sprints, keirins, team sprints, team pursuits and omniums for both sexes.
Pendleton said: "Having the opportunity to compete in more events in 2012 will be amazing."Reuse content