British cycling's seemingly unstoppable rise over the last decade saw it pass another major landmark yesterday when Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton to claim a victory in the Paris-Nice stage race in 45 years.
The precise time and place was 2.40pm local time on the summit of the Col d'Eze climb, 501 metres above a glittering Mediterranean sea, when Wiggins' yellow-clad figure flashed across the finishing line of a 9.8 kilometre uphill time trial, his victory finally guaranteed.
The leader since last Monday by a fraught six seconds, Wiggins final winning margin was almost equally small. Dutchman Lieuwe Westra, his most tenacious rival, finished two seconds slower than Wiggins on the stage, and eight seconds down overall. Such a tiny margin is the fourth smallest in Paris-Nice's 70-year history, and as such it does not do justice to how Wiggins has, despite such a slight advantage, maintained the upper hand with ruthless determination for the last week. In fact, ever since he finished a close second in the rainsoaked opening time trial last Sunday, the Briton has been the strongest and most consistent favourite.
If time trials have always been a speciality for the 31-year-old Londoner, Wiggins attentiveness when getting in the right side of a long-distance ambush by 21 riders on the Monday earned him the leader's jersey – just the fifth Briton to have that honour and the first since David Millar in 2007.
However, it was Wiggins' continuing improvement at climbing, traditionally his weakest suit, on the agonisingly steep two-mile slopes of Mende on stage five, that meant that, with one decisive time trial left, his lead became much more than a symbolic honour.
This time, for the first time in 45 years, a British win in Paris-Nice, one of cycling's top five stage races, was on the cards – and three days later, Wiggins became the first GB winner since his cycling hero, Tom Simpson, outwitted his Peugeot team-mate, a certain Eddy Merckx, to claim the victory in 1967.
"Pardon my French, but it's fucking enormous," Wiggins said afterwards. "I really think about things like that, although I've been trying not to in the last few days. But to follow in Tom Simpson's footsteps to become the second Brit to win, everybody else on the list – Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Indurain, it's a massive thing."
A GB record-equalling fourth in the 2009 Tour de France, third and a week-long leader in the Tour of Spain last year, the winner of the Giro d'Italia's prologue in 2010 were all breakthroughs for Wiggins. However, to take a second major week-long stage race after the Criterium du Dauphiné last year confirms he has yet to stop pushing back the frontiers for British road-racing.
"The Dauphiné was huge as well, but to put my name on both those races is an absolute honour really, especially with the finish on Col d'Eze," Wiggins said. "I grew up watching [seven-times Paris-Nice winner] Sean Kelly winning Paris-Nice on that summit, so coming round that final bend to do that today was even more special."
But victory was not overly surprising, though. Wiggins's time trial in the low-key Tour of Algarve in Portugal in mid-February was his earliest win in any season and yesterday he confirmed that he and Team Sky had long had Paris-Nice in their sights.
"We've got these goals and Paris-Nice was a huge one – this hasn't all been written down on the back of a bog roll or anything." Wiggins said.
Traditionally seen as a stepping stone for the Tour de France, this latest win will inevitably raise the pressure on him in July. "I'm on that list of riders who won Paris-Nice, the Dauphiné. There's just one left now to win now," Wiggins said – and it is a sign of his, and GB's relentless improvement in road-racing that he did not have spell out which race he was referring to, either.