Sky’s tactical plan is ruthlessly simple and meticulously organised but will they be allowed to control the race all the way to Paris?
Words by Lionel Birnie in Belfort
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Sunday July 8, 2012
Bradley Wiggins may lead Cadel Evans by only ten seconds overall but the plan is to extend and defend that lead over the next fortnight of the Tour.
There will no doubt be murmurs following Froome’s impressive pace-setting effort on the final two kilometres of La Planche des Belles Filles and his ability to recover enough to jump Cadel Evans at the finish that the Kenyan-born rider deserves co-leadership status.
Had he not lost 1-25 following a puncture when the peloton was flying along the river on the run-in to Seraing last Sunday, Froome would be lying second, just seven seconds behind Wiggins. That would have made Monday’s time trial from Arc-et-Senans to Besançon fascinating.
But the plan all year has been to support Wiggins and, in the Tour, a single-minded strategy is important. This is not the same scenario as the Vuelta. Wiggins was still recovering from the broken collarbone he suffered during the Tour and was not at full strength, while Froome was still something of an unknown quantity, certainly over three weeks. By the time Sky were sure that Froome was their strongest contender it was too late.
Wiggins was bold when he said that the race appeared to be between three men – himself, Evans and Vincenzo Nibali. There’s far too far to go between here and Paris. In fact, if he were to defend the jersey successfully all the way to Paris it would be the longest unbroken spell in yellow by a Tour winner since Bernard Hinault in 1981.
That in itself demonstrates the magnitude of the task ahead of Sky.
One thing is for certain. They are not going to be too cute about how they play things. Think back to Rotterdam and the 2010 prologue when Sky sought weather forecasts from the British sailing team and backed a hunch that the late starters might have to race in the rain. Sky put Wiggins off first and the rain came in earlier than anticipated. Instead of stealing a march, he finished 76th and lost 56 seconds to all the other favourites. It was a case of over-thinking things, trying to solve a problem that didn’t really exist.
Any thought that they might try to ‘loan’ the jersey out and call it back at a more convenient date would appear to be wide of the mark, although if a situation presented itself they might take it. But they probably won’t seek to manipulate it. As Wiggins said: “You can’t get cocky. You can’t pick and choose. I feel very fortunate to be in this position. I’d much rather be in yellow now.”
Sky have matured, solidified and strengthened their resolve since those first unsteady footsteps at the Tour. There is a certainty about their approach to the challenge ahead. Their tactics will not surprise anyone.
In fact, if the opposition allow them, Sky’s riders will simply set a fast pace through the Alps and then the Pyrenees.
There will be attacks, of course, but Sky’s line of riders looks formidable. They have Edvald Boasson Hagen, a multiple stage winner and undoubted talent, who is prepared to sacrifice his own ambitions this year for the team. Richie Porte finished seventh in his first Giro d’Italia a couple of years ago and Froome was runner-up to Juan Jose Cobo in the Vuelta a Espana last year, losing out only on time bonuses.
Wiggins has two time trials to come. He’s demonstrated that he’s improved the area where he was weakest by coping with the steepest sections of Saturday’s climb comfortably enough.
If there is any cause for concern it is how he copes with the demands of the yellow jersey.
To defend the jersey he will have to go through a very different post-race routine to the one where he heads to the sanctuary of the Team Sky bus and warms down to clear the lactic acid from his legs and the electricity from his mind.
Instead, he faced a succession of television interviews in the mixed zone behind the podium, then headed to the trailer to be interviewed by the written press. In all, the yellow jersey’s obligations added up to just over an hour.
Over the next fortnight that could add up to the equivalent of three stages on the bike.
One thing is certain, Sky will have factored that in some way or other. They’ll have planned for it. It’s what they do.