When Sky announced they were creating a cycling team in 2010 and that their main objective was to win the Tour de France within five seasons, there were more than a few sniggers of disbelief at the back of the class. They were new to the sport and had only made a last-minute signing in Bradley Wiggins (after protracted negotiations with his previous team, Garmin) whose best result in a three-week stage race was a surprise fourth place in one Tour de France. Their chances of winning the biggest prize of all any time soon seemed slim at best.
Well, there's no sniggering now as the 2012 Tour gets under way today. Wiggins' progress from track specialist to road racer has been so successful – particularly in the last nine months – he is favourite to win the Tour, the first Briton ever to have had such a billing and if he fails at least to become Britain's first podium finisher it will be a surprise.
His improvement has been immense; allied to the fact that no other Briton has ever had such a strong team to support him and the 2012 Tour de France is unique for British fans in the race's 104-year history.
And, if Sky hit the jackpot and bring Britain's first yellow jersey back across the Channel it could be combined with their own Mark Cavendish, the reigning world champion, winning the green jersey for best sprinter, as he did last year.
Cavendish says he is looking no further than stage wins and will have more than half an eye on the Olympic road race. He is also riding for a team that now has yellow as its main goal for the Tour. But his success rate is so huge he remains a default contender for green.
Of the two British challengers, Wiggins is the later developer. By the time the Londoner took fourth overall in the 2009 Tour, equalling Britain's best ever previous Tour finish by Robert Millar in 1984, Cavendish already had 10 Tour stage wins under his belt in the space of two years – a staggering achievement.
But while Cavendish's consistency has allowed him to double that score to 20 stages – a total that makes him the equal sixth most prolific Tour stage winner ever – Wiggins, the 32-year-old Olympic triple gold medallist, has, as he says, "unfinished business" with the Tour. Poor form in the 2010 Tour, followed by a crash and broken collarbone in the 2011 race, meant that only the steepest of learning curves last autumn and this spring could have allowed Wiggins to roll down the starting ramp in Liège this evening as favourite.
But Wiggins has done it. Third in the 2011 Tour of Spain last September, as well as leading the race for a week, was his biggest step forward as an overall challenger since 2009. But this season gruelling mountain training sessions in the Canaries – "If you can train the way we have been training then that is as good as racing," Wiggins says – have been slotted between one major race win after another: first Paris-Nice in March, then the Tour of Romandie in April and finally – and most impressively – the Dauphiné Libéré, the big form guide for the Tour de France, in June. Encouragingly, Sky insist that Wiggins has not peaked yet in terms of form.
Wiggins' stinging defeat of Cadel Evans in the Dauphiné's time trial, combined with his best mountain climbing ever on the dauntingly steep slopes of the Col de Joux Plane, set a new high point in his career. In that race, Sky's collective performance on the toughest Alpine climb – one which sank Lance Armstrong in the past – was brilliant, with three riders in the final top four, two stage wins and the team prize.
But there's more: Sky do not only have Wiggins as a potential overall winner. Chris Froome's second place in the 2011 Tour of Spain is, for now, the team's best finish in one of cycling's big three stage races, which he followed with fourth in the Dauphiné. His relative inexperience at Grand Tours is probably the Kenyan-born rider's biggest handicap. Yet in a year when there is a huge vacuum of power at the Tour – both Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, previous overall winners, are not taking part, while the top French favourite Thomas Voeckler has a troublesome knee injury – Froome could yet come to the fore, too.
The Tour's route is another reason for the low odds on Wiggins and Froome. Individual time trialling is the speciality of both Sky riders and in this Tour there are more than 100km (63 miles) of racing against the clock, compared to just 42 in 2011.
Then there is Cavendish, far and away the most consistent Tour rider of recent history in any category since he began gobbling up Tour stages at the rate of at least four a year back in 2008. This year has already been a solid one, with three stage victories in the Tour of Italy and his first overall victory in a stage race, in the Netherlands this June.
And while Wiggins has yet to find his upper limit in the Tour and an overall win or podium would be a landmark in British cycling, Cavendish is already rubbing shoulders with the all-time greats of the sport. Regularly and rightly described as the fastest sprinter in the world, at the least, of his generation, a green jersey win may yet fall his way. In a team with such strong overall ambitions, that may be very difficult (the last team to do the double was Telekom in 1997), but "just" another three stage wins would make Cavendish the most successful Tour sprinter ever – in front of the 1950s star André Darrigade's total of 22 – as well as place him ahead of a certain Mr Armstrong.
Cavendish has more tried-and-tested sprint rivals, it is true, than Wiggins has rivals for yellow: André Greipel, Tyler Farrar, Alessandro Petacchi, Oscar Freire and Marcel Kittel are all regular challengers for green. But, unlike Wiggins, Cavendish is clearly the man to beat in the bunch sprints.
But there are chinks in the armour of Sky's co-leaders and they are curiously similar: experience. In Wiggins' case he is still a little untried as a leader in a Grand Tour, while Sky have yet to form a definitive leadout train for Cavendish in the final kilometres that is in any way as powerful as the one that made it, as he said, all but "impossible to lose" when he was with his previous HTC squad.
Beyond that, London beckons: for Wiggins the ultimate dream is that of yellow in Paris and gold in the Olympic time trial. For Cavendish, the chance to be Britain's first gold winner in a home Olympics is his biggest target of the year and, in many ways, of his career.
And therein lies the rub, perhaps. With the Olympics looming so fast in the British public's imagination, Cavendish and Wiggins' Tour achievements may be overshadowed by their results in London two weeks later. This would be hugely unfair: rather as Wiggins himself said, hopefully what happens in the Tour will be an inspiration for GB's athletes – and a British landmark for an entire sport in the years to come.
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