The Tour's rest-day gives an opportunity for reflection and nowhere today will it be more intense than at Team Sky, as they contemplate an event in which they started with the highest of hopes – perhaps even of riding into Paris in yellow – and have so far barely registered on the race radar.
With Paris just four days away, Bradley Wiggins, the much garlanded Olympian who leads Team Sky, is currently in a disappointing 21st place. The team's high point has been a second place in one stage, to Arenberg, by Cardiff-born Geraint Thomas. This led to a lengthy spell in the Best Young Rider's jersey for the Welshman. But Thomas fell out of contention on the race's first summit finish 10 days ago, and since then Sky have offered little to watch apart from Wiggins' steady descent through the ranks.
Brief signs of hope, such as when the Londoner held on to the main group in a steep climb in Mende on stage 12 or yesterday's participation in an early break have mainly served to emphasise how far back Sky has been thrown from their early ambitions.
How bad a showing is it for the vaunted British newcomers? As one of the better funded squads, reported to have a £35m start-up budget over five years, the Tour stakes were always going to be high. One of their directors, Sean Yates, may regret having claimed "Wiggins can win the Tour" at the team's glitzy January launch.
It is easy to say now, with the benefit of hindsight, that Sky underestimated the strength of the opposition and were overly confident about their own. Headed by Dave Brailsford, the man behind GB's near clean-sweep of Olympic track cycling medals in Beijing two years ago, it did look as if – excuse the pun – the sky really could be the limit.
However, Graham Jones, a former top continental-based pro, says successfully racing a Tour de France is anything but straightforward, as Sky's failure to make an impact underlines. "It's very difficult to get the Tour right and that's why you have to admire the great champions like Lance Armstrong or Miguel Indurain," Jones says. "For those who are not quite up to those standards, it's very difficult to come into the Tour with good form and keep it throughout those three weeks."
Jones has direct experience of this. In 1980 he was in contention for the Tour's Best Young Rider's jersey but fell ill, and in 1981 he finished 20th despite his team duties. Jones was hailed as the next Tom Simpson, Britain's greatest pro. But that was as good as it got, as non-selection, bad luck and sickness took their toll.
There is plenty of historical precedent for Wiggins' failure to match his previous year's success. Sliding down the overall classification after finishing fourth puts him into roughly the 60 per cent of riders who form part of the Tour's top 10 one year but fail to appear in it the next.
What is disappointing, Jones argues, is that Wiggins has fallen so far short of the mark he and his team had set for themselves. In January the Briton had refused to rule out victory while saying he would sign on the dotted line for a podium place. And after a couple of bad days earlier in the Tour Wiggins still said a top 10 finish was a possibility, something that would now take what Jones calls "a miraculous turn of events. It's going to be very difficult for him. Even for 15th or 16th you've still got to try pretty hard and it's a question of whether he's now got the morale for that."
There has been a lot of talk that Wiggins may not have been able to handle the pressure of being a leader of a major team from the Tour's start, unlike last year. But Jones doesn't agree, pointing out that Wiggins has already been under a more intense media spotlight in the Olympics, and as a triple track gold medallist, came through with flying colours. "I don't think it's a factor at all, not with the back-up in the Tour," said Jones. "On the track it's far worse because you've got to get it all out in three or four minutes" – the time for pursuit events, Wiggins' speciality.
Wiggins went into the race in prime condition so there seems no obvious reason for his struggles. In an extreme endurance sport where athletes have to put up with the harshest of racing conditions combined with maximum physical vulnerability – their body fat percentage for example, is four or five per cent, three times lower than a normal adult's – some factors are impossible to predict. The key difference between Jones in his prime and Wiggins is that the Sky pro, like his team, have massive opportunities to get back into the game.
Wiggins is 30, three years younger than the 2008 winner, Carlos Sastre, at the time of his victory, and before the Tour announced he would keep going until 2013, while Sky have given themselves until 2014 to produce the first British victor of the race. There are a fair number of British riders on Sky's roster with plenty of potential – Wiggins has named Manxman Pete Kennaugh as one potential winner – so much so that Jones believes Wiggins could be forced aside and fourth in 2009 may be as good as it gets.
But the question remains why Sky have underperformed this year, one which Brailsford explains by saying it takes a long time to fine-tune riding in such a high-level event. "The first one blows you away but by the time you've done three or four, you just take it on," Brailsford yesterday told www.cyclingnews.com. "I guess it's the same at the Tour. You have to do the hours and we're doing them." He was also adamant that on the basis of the previous Tour, with Wiggins taking home the equal best result for a British rider in the race, there could have been no other option but putting all their eggs in the Londoner's basket, and that failure was part of the game.
"Last year Brad got fourth and so it was right to go for that again. One of the things I've learnt in the 12 years I've been doing the Olympics programme is that you think something is going to happen but the body gives you a nasty shock. And it's excruciating when it happens. But that's sport. If you want to try and win the big prize and be the hero, you have to accept that you can also lose."Reuse content