Tour de France: Wiggins puts in one for the boys
Bradley Wiggins revealed another of his multiple talents yesterday when the Tour de France leader acted as wingman for his team-mate Edvald Boasson Hagen in the 45-rider bunch sprint that decided yesterday's stage.
Finally third, Boasson Hagen was unable to add a third win to his brace of stages taken for Sky in the 2011 Tour – the victory went instead to Germany's André Greipel.
But the sight of the yellow jersey steaming round the final long right-hand corner at the head of the pack as they tore towards the finish in the Cap d'Agde Mediterranean beach resort had TV commentators out of their chairs all the same.
As Greipel pointed out afterwards, Wiggins has adapted to this role of guiding a team-mate through the pack at speeds of 70kph before, and very well, too – most memorably for Cavendish when the two raced in the Columbia-HTC team back in 2008.
And proof of the sprinters' faith in Wiggins's ability to mix it in the bunch gallops was that Greipel said he deliberately manouevred his way to behind Boasson Hagen because he was confident that Wiggins would get his Norwegian team-mate ideally placed for the final dash for the line. "He's very good at it," added the triple stage winner Peter Sagan of Slovakia, second yesterday.
Even so, for Wiggins to work so hard for his team-mate while trying to win the biggest bike race in the world was an unexpectedly generous gesture. Although Fabian Cancellara, the Tour's first leader, has also done this in the past, a time trial specialist like him is never going to battle for outright Tour de France victory. For an overall contender to do so, in yellow to boot, is almost unprecedented.
Wiggins's switch from Tour leader to lead-out man – as the last man to guide a sprinter into position – was not the only change for Sky yesterday. It had been widely expected that the world champion, Mark Cavendish, would be the British team's man for the sprint. However, like more than two thirds of the peloton, Cavendish was dropped on the Mont Saint Clair climb, some 30 kilometres from the finish, that reared out of the coastal town of Sète like the side of a house.
Key rival Cadel Evans tested the water with a prolonged acceleration in the climb's steeper second half, but Wiggins more than rose to the occasion, keeping a steady pace that saw him come steadily back up to the Australian's right shoulder and discourage further attacks.
Cavendish was unable to regain contact with the front group, meaning he will now have to wait until Monday's flattish stage into Pau to try to equal the total of 22 wins taken by André Darrigade – the Tour's all-time greatest sprinter. Meanwhile Sky's front-runners – Wiggins, Chris Froome and Mick Rogers – decided to switch to Plan B and work for Boasson Hagen, present in the front group, instead.
Explaining why he was willing to expend energy for his team-mate, Wiggins explained: "To be right at the front was probably the safest place for me.
"Apart from eliminating any personal risks, I also wanted to help Edvald get back up there because he's been solid for me this year and throughout the Tour."
"I'd have been making the same kind of effort if I was lying thirtieth, but it was a good way of trying to repay a friend of mine."
Apart from fielding the almost obligatory question about doping – "I have nothing to hide but I think that would not be enough for some people unless they lived with me for 12 months, and I'm not prepared for that", was Wiggins's forthright response – the British leader was asked if he was now prepared to take on another position traditionally assumed by the Tour's strongest rider, that of patron or unofficial boss in the peloton.
Wiggins politely but firmly said: "We're all equals at the end of the day, everybody works just as hard in the peloton, and in my experience when there have been bosses in the past it's been more out of fear rather than respect."
Fine words that Wiggins's willingness to work for Boasson Hagen suggests strongly are sincerely felt as well.
Today's stage Limoux-Foix, 191km. The Tour's first incursion into the Pyrenees, with two little-known first-category climbs, the Port de Lers and the Mur de Péguère. The second is unremittingly steep, but with 40 kilometres from its summit to the finish, the likelihood is that the overall contenders will ease back.
Pick of the week's stages
Stage 16 Wednesday 18 July (Pau–Bagnères de Luchon, 197km): Featuring all the classic Pyrenean climbs, from the dauntingly long, relentlessly demanding Tourmalet to the short, punchy Peyresourde, after nearly three weeks of racing nearly all the major contenders will be close to breaking point. If there is a long-distance mountain attack on the Tour de France this year – as happened in 2011 with Andy Schleck – this is the day it will happen. If Wiggins is still in the lead, this is his rivals' best opportunity to dislodge him.
Stage 19 Saturday 21 July (Bonneval–Chartres, individual time trial, 53.5km): Wiggins (if he's still leading) will have to make one final effort here before Sunday's largely ceremonial stage into Paris. Unremittingly flat and featureless, on paper this should be his best stage in the Tour. But with riders close to breaking point, nothing is so certain – and four of the Past five Tours have been won and lost on this final stage.
Golden month: How it might unfold
Bradley Wiggins wins the final time trial of the Tour de France, sealing Britain's first victory in the 108-year-old race.
Mark Cavendish wins on the Champs-Elysées for a fourth successive time. Wiggins and Chris Froome are first and third overall, the first Britons ever to stand on the Tour's final podium.
Cavendish takes Britain's first gold in the London Olympics in the road race.
Nicole Cooke repeats her 2008 victory in the women's road race. Lizzie Armitstead scoops silver.
Emma Pooley takes a medal in the women's time trial; Wiggins takes gold in the men's event.
Track, day one: Victories in the team sprints continue the gold rush.
Track, day two: Britain's team pursuiters, led by Geraint Thomas and Ed Clancy fend off Australia to repeat their Beijing victory.
Track, day three: The women's team pursuiters, favourites after their World Championships triumph, take gold and break the world record of just over 3min 15 sec.
Another gold for Sir Chris Hoy – unless Jason Kenny is making the running – in the men's sprint.
Track, day six: Vicky Pendleton nets a second London gold and the final medal of her career in the women's sprint; Laura Trott follows in the Omnium; Hoy repeats his 2008 keirin gold.
Shanaze Reade rounds off GB's efforts with their 12th medal, in the BMX.
Sky take the opening time trial of the Tour of Spain, en route to a second Grand Tour win in 2012 three weeks later.
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