Hidden away in the Surrey golfing belt the British road cycling elite eased out of Tour de France mode and into Olympic week protected from the frenzy that awaits along the Mall tomorrow. This bucolic setting was shared yesterday by a wedding party and a smaller group celebrating a 70th birthday. Tea and cakes meets testosterone and pedals. Has any Olympic challenge enjoyed such a serene send-off?
A perfect storm is how the team leader David Millar described this week of weeks for British cycling. The five men assembled to bring home the first gold of the Games for Britain is not only the strongest domestic combo but arguably the best the world has seen. Bradley Wiggins, the first Briton to win the Tour de France, hand in hand with Mark Cavendish, the world road race champion and winner of a record 23 Tour stages, driven along by the tour runner-up, Chris Froome, Millar and Ian Stannard, the British road race champion.
Wiggins is grateful for the diversion the Olympics provides. It has given him a focus away from the bewilderment surrounding his achievements over the past three weeks. He admitted to being shocked at the response of the British public to his heroics in France, overwhelmed by the messages of support, which culminated with a letter from the Queen. While that would be the ultimate sanction for most, it paled in the eyes of this Cockney rebel.
"It's all very strange. Those sorts of things don't happen to guys like me. My wife kept going on ecstatic that Queen had sent us a letter. I kept saying, 'F*** the Queen, Johnny Marr has sent me a text on Twitter.' But she said, 'It's the Queen.' I said, 'And this is Johnny Marr, Cath, come on'. I had a message from 'God', too, Robbie Fowler."
Before Buckingham Palace considers sending Wiggins to the Tower on charges of treason, the anecdote was obviously ironic. For the record, he was not serious either in his deification of Fowler, who is known as "God" on the Kop at Liverpool, where the heart of Wiggins truly lies. "From all walks of life. To think that sport can transcend life. A letter from the Queen to a Twitter message from Robbie Fowler. Two ends of the spectrum.
"I never imagined it would be like that this week. In cycling terms I knew how big it was but I was surprised by the reaction of general public. It has been nice coming here into this environment, very protective. We are like monkeys in a cage on the Tour. Here it has been a nice environment to just ride your bike, get massages, etc. I had a little taste just riding around the course. People out there seeing us, painters and decorators saying, 'Bloody hell, it's the British cycling team."
The famous five must have looked like men from outer space in their state-of-the-art kits. Wiggins reckons their appearance as they came upon the Canadian team gave the game away. Tomorrow's race is about going from the gun and firing the bullet at just the right time; the bullet being Cavendish. Dave Brailsford, the performance director of British cycling, put it like this: "Mark is Plan A and the rest of the alphabet. If he does not win we are not winning. I'm pretty sure we are not the only country trying to win this on a sprint. It is a brilliant course, lots of intrigue. Depends on tactics, but that is where we are blessed. It's about playing to our strengths and on not getting into other tactical games."
Wiggins, is happy to demur, to swap the yellow jersey for a pair of overalls to ensure the plan pays off. The respect between these towering figures is absolute. Wiggins knows well enough how Team Sky sacrificed Cavendish and the glory of the Green Jersey for the maillot jaune. But this is not only about Wiggins showing his appreciation. It is an acceptance that in this format, Cavendish is king. "This is what Cav has been living for all year. He is looking as fit as I have ever seen him. We are now approaching the thing that he has been working towards.
"He is rallying the boys, constantly saying what a fantastic team he has around him. In our mind there is no doubt. He has been there for me for last month. Now he can sense it is his turn and we are there for him. I know what I have to do. And I will do what I'm asked to do. That decision will be based on what's right for the team. This is the strongest road-racing team that has ever been assembled; one and two in the Tour de France. If you start looking at the team we must look incredibly dominant.
"It's no secret what we are up to. It's for others to combat that. If it is a straight-line sprint on The Mall he [Cavendish] is the fastest. Get him to 2km out at the front and he will win the bike race."
The sense of team spirit and sacrifice is deeply endearing, according to Brailsford, who has somehow managed to group all the talents in his cycling cabinet without a hint of dissent or jealousy. "The sacrifice is something to be admired. Mark was pouring water down Bradley's back a couple of weeks ago. When you see a team that is fully committed and aligned to winning gold it is something to see. Bradley will exhaust himself to help Mark win gold."
Wiggins already has his. And he will be racing again on his own terms when he goes for gold in the time trial at Hampton Court next week. For now it's about propelling Cavendish across the line to win the first gold of the Games for Britain. "The Tour captured everybody's imagination. It was a great way to step into the Olympic arena. And what a great start. We are proud to have the first opportunity to race and continue momentum from the Tour. We are very happy to be going for the first medal and confident with it. With Mark in the shape he is in, why not?"
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