Tour de France: Life after Wiggins a test for Team Sky

As the injured Briton's squad tries a new plan of action, Rui Costa strikes out to take Massif Central stage

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The Independent Online

As their Tour de France leader Bradley Wiggins prepared for an operation tomorrow on his broken collarbone back in Britain, Team Sky's projects for their eight remaining riders in the race underwent some radical rejigging.

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For any team with overall ambitions, to lose their sole leader to injury or illness effectively destroys that goal in one fell swoop – and for Sky, after such a superb start, and 24 hours after Edvald Boasson Hagen had taken their first ever Tour stage win, to lose Wiggins was an exceptionally cruel blow.

Sitting at the wheel of his team car outside their hotel in rural central France yesterday morning Sky's road coach, Rod Ellingworth, defined Sky's position "as revamp, rethink, move on".

He said: "It's uncharted waters for Sky, but it's not the end of the world. Bradley's accident could have happened to anybody, but it changes things and straightaway last night we were already replanning.

"For the others they have to see it as an opportunity to get some stage wins. We've won one, I don't see why we can't win another."

Wiggins flew out by private jet from a military airfield late on Friday, leaving the remaining eight riders to hold their first team meeting yesterday morning.

"It was like 'come on guys, let's get out there'," Ellingworth said. "The good thing is there are no big egos, so they'll be honest about who they have to work for."

Geraint Thomas, the Best Young Rider in the Tour until he waited in vain to support Wiggins on Friday, defiantly added: "Where are we going to go from here? Off the front of the pack, that's where. The next three stages [Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday] are the breakaway stages, and now we've got to chance our arms. It would be a shame to go under the radar now, instead we've got to try to refocus."

As Ellingworth pointed out, Wiggins' accident could have been much worse in a bad year. In May, Belgian Wouter Weylandt died in a downhill crash in the Tour of Italy, while the Spanish allrounder Xavi Tondo was killed in a domestic accident. Meanwhile two top women cyclists, the South African Carla Swart and Australian Carly Hibbard, had fatal accidents in training – Hibbard last week.

As if that was not enough, a former Tour King of the Mountains, Colombia's Juan Mauricio Soler is in a hospital in Spain after an appalling crash in the Tour de Suisse in June. His brain injuries are so bad he still cannot speak.

On an exceptionally crash ridden Tour, the list of abandonments grew longer yesterday as the American Chris Horner did not start the stage and another contender, Spain's Beñat Intxausti, also quit after riding with a fractured wrist proved too much. RadioShack veteran Horner, 10th in last year's Tour, broke his nose and suffered concussion in the crash that saw Wiggins quit, while his team-mate Levi Leipheimer is in trouble after several pile-ups this year.

"It's always nervous in these first weeks," Horner's team manager, Johan Bruyneel, said. "Maybe though, there's less respect between the riders than there used to be. At the same time teams are getting more and more professional, there's less difference between the top riders, so the pressure's getting higher too. Every day it's a war and the war's getting more important. The only thing that doesn't change is the width of the roads."

As for Wiggins, it is possible that he will return to major stage racing in the Tour of Spain in August before heading to the World Championships in September in what could be a test run for his goal of Olympic time-trial gold next summer. And in what could augur a rapid recovery, the Briton's humour is improving fast, too.

Yesterday Wiggins joked on Twitter that while he is due for his operation tomorrow, his two dogs "are due to have their balls chopped off on Wednesday... I hope my drugs don't confuse me and I end up at the wrong appointment."

If Wiggins watched the Tour on television, he would have seen that Sky were taking their new role seriously, with one team-mate Xavier Zandio making it into the nine-man break of the day and another, Juan Antonio Flecha counterattacking close to the end. Neither moved worked out, and after fierce skirmishing, Portugal's Rui Costa claimed a solo win on a climb to the finish in the bleak moorland ski station of Super-Besse in the Massif Centrale, while the Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd clung on to the overall lead.

Rui Costa's dedication to his late Movistar team-mate Tondo and to Soler, too, as the rain teemed down on the Tour yet again gave a sombre edge to the Portuguese rider's victory. As for the rest of the Tour riders – and Sky – they are crossing their fingers and hoping for brighter days.

What yesterday's stage means

The reigning world champion Thor Hushovd expected to lose his yellow jersey yesterday, but he surprised all by keeping it. Will he hang on to it as far as the Pyrenees on Thursday?

The defending champion and leading favourite Alberto Contador tried to shake off the rest of the favourites on the race's second uphill finish at Super-Besse. And for a second time it didn't work out – raising questions about Contador'sunderlying form.

Cadel Evans' strong counterattack when Contador shook up the field shows that the Australian veteran, second overall and a stage winner, has to be counted as a major contender.

Alasdair Fotheringham

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