The UK enjoyed unprecedented glory at this year’s Tour de France, but just how well does Bradley Wiggins’ fourth place stand up to Britain’s performances throughout the race’s history?

1956 and 1959 Brian Robinson — 14th and 19th at 1-12-11
Over fifty years before Bradley Wiggins’ fourth-place, Brian Robinson was Britain’s Tour trailblazer. In 1956, he rode to fourteenth overall. However, his topsy-turvy race three years later grabbed more headlines. Ninth overall with ten days remaining, Robinson dramatically finished outside the time limit, exhausted, on stage fourteen, only to be reinstated. Out of contention for the overall after losing an hour, he changed tack and focused all his energies on a stage victory.

Riding with a mixed international team, he attacked alone on stage twenty and soloed to Great Britain’s second Tour stage — Robinson had also taken the nation’s first the year before — beating a lethargic peloton by twenty minutes. His 140-kilometre foray also took him from 42nd overall into the top twenty overall. Robinson’s quality is often forgotten — he won the 1961 edition of the Dauphiné Libéré and finished third in Milan-San Remo.

1962 Tom Simpson — sixth at 17-09 to Anquetil
The 1962 Tour de France was 24 year-old Tom Simpson’s breakthrough Grand Tour ride. After a solid first week, he rose to second overall behind Andre Darrigade, after infiltrating a thirty-man break which gained six minutes on stage eight. Four days later, he became the first Briton to wear the maillot jaune, riding over the Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde with the favourites.

However, Simpson slipped to fifth the next day, losing almost six minutes in a time-trial up Superbagnères, and lost another place late on in the race. Nevertheless, his consistency has only been matched by Bradley Wiggins: the Harworth-born man never dropped below twelfth overall over the course of the race. Though he won the world road-race championship and the Tours of Flanders and Lombardy in his career, Tour de France success became a driving force for Simpson. His winning ambitions ended both poignantly and abruptly with his untimely death on Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour.

1981 Graham Jones — 20th at 41-06 to Hinault
Jones first hit the top twenty overall after his Peugeot squad finished second in the fourth stage 77-kilometre TTT. However, his team would become burdensome later: in both the Pyrenees and the Alps, Jones had to put aside personal ambitions to drop back and assist Peugeot team leaders Jean-Rene Bernaudeau and, later, Phil Anderson.

Things came to a head on the race’s nineteenth stage from Morzine to Alpe d’Huez, as Jones was called back from the leading group to pace a shattered Anderson, sat second overall at the time. The Australian lost 17 minutes at the end of the day, with Jones leaving him late on to recover some time. Despite obeying team orders, he still managed to take twentieth place overall in Paris. Nowadays, Jones may be familiar to readers as a Tour de France commentator on BBC Radio 5 Live.

Britain's Robert Millar attacks in pursuit of Theunisse on Alpe d'Huez

1984 Robert Millar — fourth at 14-42 to Fignon
After a solid first week kept him in the mix, Millar rocketed into seventh overall on stage eleven by winning at Guzet-Neige. As he rode consistently through the Pyrenees, Millar was resolute that his target remained the King of the Mountains jersey, despite the fact that the Scot was riding better than Peugeot team leader and friend Pascal Simon.

Back-to-back fifth and fourth place finishes on summit finishes at Alpe d’Huez and La Plagne took him into a commanding King of the Mountains lead and fourth place overall. However, it was a fine surprise seventh on the race’s penultimate-day 51-kilometre time-trial that cemented the reticent Scot’s finishing position.

At the next year’s Vuelta, he came the closest any Briton has ever done to winning a Grand Tour, losing the race lead at the eleventh hour, as a group of Spanish contenders worked together to ensure home victory for Pedro Delgado.

1996 Chris Boardman — 39th at 1-27-44 to Riis
There was a residual hope for several years that Chris Boardman’s excellent time-trialling and supreme physical attributes could lead to a high Tour finish, when coupled with consistent climbing. However, his lack of form when it mattered, perhaps coupled with the drug-addled era he competed in, made a high position nigh impossible.

In 1996, he blew up spectacularly on the Tour’s first big mountain stage, to Les Arcs, tumbling from tenth to 41st overall. Though Boardman was still hopeful of a top twenty finish, his slow movement up the classification was halted by another jour sans on the road to Pamplona, finishing in the autobus. A sixth place on the final time-trial lifted the Olympic gold medallist back into the top forty overall. It would prove to be the precociously talented Boardman’s highest-ever Tour finish.

2003 David Millar — 55th at 1-54-38 to Armstrong
Though showing glimpses of climbing ability, Millar, like Boardman, has proved unable to string strong mountain performances together over the course of a Grand Tour. The 2003 race started badly for him: Millar lost the prologue by 0.08 seconds, unshipping his chain 500 metres from the finish on the Paris pave, after crossing the intermediate time check fastest.

Though still scraping inside the top thirty with a week to go, a bout of bronchitis saw Millar spend two days in the Pyrenean gruppetto and consequently plummet down the overall classification. While the enthralling head-to-head between Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich stole headlines in a rainy time-trial from Pornic to Nantes, Millar made amends for his prologue disappointment, as the easily-forgotten stage winner that day.

2009 Bradley Wiggins — fourth at 6-01 to Contador
After ten months of hard labour on the road, Wiggins had spoken tentatively pre-Tour of a possible top-twenty overall finish. His strong prologue performance, taking third, was somewhat expected. However, his performance on the road to Arcalis was the first of several surprises, as Wiggins comfortably stayed at the head of affairs with the contenders. Emerging from the Pyrenees in fifth, it became clear that this was a different Bradley Wiggins to any seen before.

In the months prior to the Tour, he had shed seven kilograms from his already-skinny frame, while maintaining his power. The Londoner only lost significant time when the Schleck brothers and Contador attacked the race on the road to Le Grand-Bornand. More significantly, podium rival Armstrong escaped on the day’s last climb, the Colombière, to gain 49 seconds by the finish.

“Wiggo” moved to fourth overall after a strong time-trial round Annecy, but his gritty and tenacious performance on the Ventoux will be the one remembered in the future. After being dropped late on, the Garmin man fought all the way to the finish to limit his losses to Frank Schleck and save his position, thus equalling Millar’s 1984 result.

Related links

Cycling Weekly’s 2009 Tour de France section

  • Ian Hayward

    I was interested to read Shirley Sutton’s comments about her Husband Vic Sutton’s performances. The nature of sport means that we often make comparisons between riders of different eras, however no two experiences are the same. Leading Tour greats such as Anquetil & Bahamontes up the Tourmalet stands comparison with the rest that followed. How much opportunity had Vic to train in the mountains one wonders? Naturally Bradley Wiggins performance on paper looks the best, and he stands a good chance of turning in the best British result ever – good luck this year Bradley. We must not forget those who went before though, and thanks Shirley for bringing Vic’s acheivements to our notice. I found the following link on ‘youtube’ and wondered if Vic could be identified anywhere in this film.

  • Matt Blythe

    Re: Glenn’s comment above, ‘a mediocre Fignon’?!! Fignon was at his very best in the 1984 Tour; he won 5 stages (all 3 time trials and 2 mountain top finishes, both won solo). Hinault finished 2nd at over 10 minutes behind.

  • Glenn Whitney

    It’s not just the fourth-place finish – Wiggins finished only 6:06 down from an extremely strong Contador. That compares rather better to Millar’s fourth place by 14:02 to a rather mediocre Fignon.

  • Mrs Shirley Sutton

    Vic Sutton finished 37th overall in the 1959 Tour de France and collapsed on the 17th stage in the 1960 Tour de France, after riding the Tour of Switzerland and finishing only two days before the Tour started. Please check on the placing in the Tour fo Switzerland 1960. I think it was 4th overall.

    It was 50 years this year since the Tour went over the Tourmalet and Vic Sutton was leading Anqueteil, Dotto, two others and Bahamontes at “5” to go by a stone on the roadside. I have the photo on my wall showing this.
    Shirley Sutton. (widow)

  • Barry Brookes

    For me, although I have the greatest of regard for Robert Millar, Brian Robinson has to be considered as being particularly special. He laid the foundations for all British riders who would dare follow in his wheel tracks, and so few have succeeded. It is possible that Bradley Wiggins will prove to be the best British Tour rider of all time, and I am sure even he will pay tribute to the man who led the way; Brian Robinson.

  • Matt Blythe

    What about Robert Millar’s other Tour de France perfomances? He finished in the top 20 on 5 other occasions including 10th in 1989 and won 3 Pyrenean stages in total. In 1986 he was 4th overall and in the mountains jersey with a week to go, before falling ill and abandoning, perhaps paying the price for another 2nd place in the Vuelta. A year later he was 5th overall with a week to go before slipping to 19th, this coming after finishing 2nd in the Giro.

    Regarding Chris Boardman’s 39th place in 1996; have a look at the 38 names that finished above him and ask yourself how many of them were clean.

  • Gary Wallis

    With no disrespect to Cavendish, I think Wiggins is the best UK TDF rider ever due to the fact he is a Gold medal Olympian in another discipline and THE ONLY RIDER to publish his blood tests for the world to see. I Think Boardman should be commended as he rode in an era riddled with dopers and he looked like he struggled to finish, due to being just worn out,total respect to the man.

  • GaryB

    Brad’s fourth place, overall, was commendable and establishes him in the top rank of British Tour de France cyclists and, fortunately, time is still on his side to build of what he achieved in 2009. I would suggest that for true greatness, and to show that he has real potential to win the race he will have to show his capability of winning stage victories in future years. This was the one thing missing from his 2009 tour, although he was in good company, as Lance Armstrong also rode extremely well for his deserved third place, overall, without a stage win to mark his return.

    I know we are celebrating Brad’s excellent overall performance and fourth place, but how does this compare with Cav’s six stage victories this time around? Cav, will get my vote for Sportsman of the Year on his exceptional showing, with no disrespect to Brad.


    Tom Simpson was born in Co. Durham (Haswell??), not Harworth.