Bradley Wiggins is fast becoming the 2012 Tour de France favourite after yesterday claiming his second straight win in the Critérium du Dauphiné, for his third big-race victory of the season.
In March he became Britain's first winner since 1967 of France's second most important stage race, Paris-Nice, and then GB's first winner of the almost equally prestigious Tour of Romandie in Switzerland in April. It all puts him in in great shape for the Tour de France itself.
"I think this year obviously I've had a good run at it now, and this is probably the best shape I've ever been in to win the Tour," Wiggins said after his Dauphiné win. "My time trialling's improved, my climbing's improved, my team is really strong and improved and I'm ready to go."
Individually, Wiggins' performance has been all but faultless. Second in the opening prologue and in the race lead since last Monday, the sight of Wiggins bearing down on last year's Tour de France winner Cadel Evans in the Dauphiné's main time trial was one that will be hard to forget. So too was the way Wiggins rode up the Col de Joux Plane – a climb so difficult it has even poleaxed Lance Armstrong in the past – surrounded by his Sky cohorts and in total control of the race.
Sky's collective performance was equally impressive. Apart from Wiggins, Mick Rogers claimed second overall while fourth overall went to Chris Froome, the Briton's best result since his runner's-up spot in the Tour of Spain last September. Edvald Boasson Hagen – whom Wiggins said "made a huge difference" - and Richie Porte were also on song. Factor in Mark Cavendish and, on paper, Sky will start the Tour head and shoulders above the rest of their rivals on almost every front.
Q: Given his Dauphiné performance, can Wiggins win the Tour de France?
A: Yes. Barring accident, illness or injury (and let's not forget how well Wiggins was racing last year when he crashed out of the Tour) the Briton is clearly on great form and ready to go next month. The Tour route, with over 100 kilometres of time trialling, suits him better than almost any other year. Best of all, his climbing has improved enormously, even compared to last September in the Tour of Spain when he was already running his rivals ragged on all bar the steepest mountains. And of his rivals right now, only Evans seems to be in good form. But winning the Tour is a huge ask. Wiggins, rightly, is preaching huge amounts of caution, saying "we haven't got the arrogance to be sending out messages. This is just about the Dauphiné at this particular time. Things may be different at the Tour. We just work one day at a time and everybody is building towards July."
Q: And if we're being pessimistic?
A: The podium looks more than accessible. If Wiggins gets on the podium, he will be the first Briton to finish in the Tour's top three – no mean achievement.
Q: Are there any worries on the horizon?
A: Several. First, and foremost, there is an eternal armchair debate in cycling over how long form as good as Wiggins' can last. Three-times Tour podium finisher Andy Schleck, for one, has said he thinks Wiggins is in too a good shape now to last through the Tour de France. On the other hand, as Wiggins points out, he's been on "a bloody long peak [of form]" this year and his condition, if anything, seems to be getting stronger.
Secondly, Sky have only had one shot at defending a lead in a major Tour – last year's Tour of Spain. The Tour de France is far tougher. Thirdly, Wiggins has had a brilliantly successful season so far, with the entire team at his service. Cavendish has done almost equally well, taking three Giro d'Italia stages, and will expect some riders to work for him. Meshing the two riders' objectives together next month – and Sky say they want to be the first team since Telekom in 1997 to take both green and yellow in the Tour de France – could represent a challenge, or it could further strengthen the team. Watch this space.
Q: Anything else that might put a brake on Wiggins' hopes?
A: There is still time for Evans, and others, to build their form before the Tour. Accidents can and do happen. Surprise challengers could come out of the woodwork. As Wiggins says: "If the Tour was easy then everybody would do [win] it."
Q: Could going for the Tour affect his Olympic chances?
A: The only answer for that will be after the Olympic time trial but, on past evidence, Wiggins has proved he can manage to perform outstanding well in a Grand Tour and then in a time trial. In last year's Tour of Spain he finished third overall and led the race for nearly a week – his best Grand Tour result to date – then came second in the World Time-Trial Championships. This summer his form looks even stronger. On paper, then, it is possible, although the Tour de France is a far, far bigger challenge than the Tour of Spain.