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Cycling: Wiggins returns to day job but Cav steals his thunder

East Anglia welcomes Tour de France winner as Cavendish says goodbye to Sky

Ipswich has not known fever like it since Trevor Whymark and Eric Gates were knocking them in at Portman Road and Bobby Robson was parading the FA Cup in an open-top bus. Cycling is the new football, and today the citizenry of East Anglia will be waving the bunting for a set of whiskers to rival any in Seventies Suffolk. Yes, he's back. The one and only Bradley Wiggins, Whymark in Lycra, face of GQ, returns to the saddle alongside Mark Cavendish in the Tour of Britain.

And last night came the strongest indication that Cavendish is no longer content with second billing. His carefully timed announcement that he intends to leave Team Sky will steal much of Wiggins's thunder today and proved that cycling is becoming a bit like, well, football.

Cavendish has yet to draw breath this summer, last week's Tour of Denmark the latest of many engagements for the road-race world champion following the personal disappointment of the Olympics. Wiggins, in contrast, has spent the post Tour de France/Olympic period in repose, and in grooming, judging by the sharp angles he presented at the GQ Awards, where he picked up the Lifetime Achievement bauble from no less a style counsellor, Liam Gallagher.

Wiggins, in his double-breasted Mod classic and Paul Weller "barnet", dominated the party peloton at the Royal Opera House, shaking it down with Bono and the boys and pulling the leg of Mo Farah, whom he insisted on calling Mia Farrow. Only a figure of exalted status would dare pull the Mobot's trousers down on the big stage. Wiggins could swear at the Queen and still not cause offence, such is the unconditional love he triggered on the roads of France and south-west London.

That impromptu moment, posing with two fingers raised on the faux throne in Hampton Court after his Olympic time-trial gold, was one of the defining images of London 2012, and marked his passage from sporting giant to something greater.

Luke Rowe is one of the six-member Sky Team who set out today from Ipswich to Norwich on the opening and longest stage of the eight-day tour. This is his debut year as a neo-pro with Sky, and his first engagement with Wiggins. "It's been a pretty special year for the sport," Rowe said. "Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish, Team Sky's Tour de France success and then the Olympics has taken it to a whole different level. It's just nice to be part of this environment. For a sport to be successful the first thing you need is successful sportsmen, which we have got. And then you need them to get the required coverage, which effectively advertises the sport. We are getting that now.

"I live in Cardiff, a mile from the end of stage six in Caerphilly. There is real excitement and a buzz around town. I went out on the road last Sunday and there were bikes everywhere. Just this past week a couple of my mates rang me asking where they can get a bike. You are looking at about 12 grand for one like mine. I don't think they are in the market for that.

"I have done quite a few races with Cav, but this is my first with Bradley. There is definitely added pressure riding with these guys. The two biggest names in the sport are in our team. Considering the success they have had you might expect it to go to their heads, but they are both down-to-earth guys, good as gold. You can sit down and have a chat with them just like the rest of the lads."

Though Wiggins will attract the neutral eye, the professional classes are not looking beyond Cavendish today. The opening stage takes the 15 teams across 125 miles of largely flat terrain, concluding at the Norfolk Showground to the west of Norwich. Rowe, Wiggins et al are thus riding to bring the rainbow warrior home for Sky in the sprint to the finish.

For Rowe it is a privilege to bend his back in another's cause in the engine room of the British team at a time of unprecedented interest in the sport. Like Tiger Woods in golf, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in football, Wiggins and Cavendish are the ones driving the cycling show.

"They are completely different but exactly the same. Cav is the fastest sprinter in the world, Bradley is the best GC (general classification) rider on the planet," Rowe said.

"They are both the best at what they do, at the top of their game, so you can't split them in terms of talent and ability. You really want to go there and perform. Whoever I'm working for in the team I want to do my best. I'm the middle man, expected to lead out Cav on the flat stages and Bradley in the mountains. For every winner there are a lot of guys behind the scenes helping them to get across the line."

The role of the domestique is central. Rowe is neither mountain man nor sprint king but the glue that binds the whole. He was on the longlist for London 2012 and has targeted the road race in Rio for his Olympic bow. The coming week he is happy just to share in the remarkable Cav and Wiggo two-step that is reshaping cycling parameters in Great Britain.