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Dream the impossible dream

I’ve mentioned this before, but it is worth reiterating that Britain’s Bradley Wiggins is currently third in the overall standings at the Tour de France, with five of 21 stages remaining.

In fact, it’s worth a look at this morning’s standings to see the stratospheric company ‘Wiggo’ is keeping these days:
1. Alberto Contador 67h 33′ 15″
2. Lance Armstrong @ 01′ 37″ behind
3. Bradley Wiggins @ 01′ 46″
4. Andreas Klöden @ 2’ 17”
5. Andy Schleck @ 02′ 26″
6. Vincenzo Nibali @ 02′ 51″
7. Christophe Le Mevel @ 03′ 09″
8. Frank Schleck @ 03′ 25″
9. Carlos Sastre @ 03′ 52″
10. Christian Vande Velde @ 03′ 59″

(And this is a top 10 which does not include Cadel Evans, runner-up in the past two years, and Denis Menchov, winner of three Grand Tours including the Giro d’Italia in May.)

We are talking here about a rider who has never finished in the top 100 at the Tour, but who this season has focussed on road racing with the same dedication he has formerly applied to the track, where he has won three Olympic golds, including two at Beijing last summer.

Before the start of this year’s Tour, Wiggins talked about how he had lost 7kg to improve his ability to climb in the high mountains, and that a finish in the top 15 or 20 was a realistic ambition. That alone seemed a stretching target at the time: he was expected to perform well in the time trials, but had never previously shown any ability in the high mountains of the Alps and the Pyrenees.

But his performances in the Tour’s first two summit finishes at Arcalis (stage 7) and Verbier (stage 15), where he was able to live with – and in some cases ride away from – most of the elite climbers have catapulted him into a podium position.

Yesterday he underlined his new-found status by being able to follow every acceleration the Schlecks could throw at the leading group, a task which proved to be too much, at least initially, for such dignitaries as Armstrong and his own Garmin team leader, Christian Vande Velde.

Wiggins now appears set fair for a top 10 finish at the very least, and despite the extreme tests which will be provided on three of the next four days, a podium place is now a distinct possibility.

But, which place exactly?

It would be foolish to take a top three finish for granted, as the time gaps among the leaders are not that big. The 2’ 13” which currently separates him from tenth-placed Vande Velde could easily be lost in one go on the slopes of Mont Ventoux, the ‘Giant of Provence’, on Saturday. Even today’s five-climb stage, with the one-two combination of the Col de Romme and the Col de la Colombiėre (both category 1) at the end is also fraught with danger, as we can expect multiple breakaways and continued attacks from the brothers Schleck.

But if Wiggins can stick with Armstrong, Klöden and Nibali, and do no worse than sustain limited losses to Andy Schleck – who will lose at least a couple of minutes to everyone else in tomorrow’s time trial – then he has every chance of reaching the summit of Ventoux in the top three.

And if he can ride the time trial of his life tomorrow and eke out, say, a minute over everyone other than Contador, then second suddenly becomes a strong possibility, as he will then have the luxury of a small cushion to defend on Saturday, rather than having to attack.

So, consolidate third spot. Possibly sneak past Lance into second. What would it take to – dare we even think it – overhaul Contador?

This is an entirely different proposition. Contador has already demonstrated that he is the strongest climber of the current generation, he has strong teammates in Armstrong and Klöden to help defend against attacks (not that he needs them, based on the evidence so far), and is now also a top-level time trialist. It would take a major loss of form for Contador to lose his advantage of nearly two minutes over Wiggins over the next two days, so the only realistic chance is that he cracks under sustained pressure on the slopes of Ventoux. If that happens, a rider can easily lose three or four minutes in as many kilometres. But, it has to be said, it’s pretty unlikely: Contador is just too strong, both physically and mentally.

However, if 90% of the battle is won or lost in a cyclist’s head, then at least Wiggins is in good shape to capitalise on any opportunities. The difference in both his words and his body language over the past two weeks has been immense, as this comment after yesterday’s stage highlights: “When Andy puts it down there’s only three or four of us that are really there.” He now knows he belongs among the elite, rather than thinking he might do.

And it is clear that he has more than just a podium finish in Paris on his mind. When it was pointed out to him that at one stage yesterday it looked like he might be about to leapfrog Armstrong into second overall, his response was, “Yeah, but there’s plenty of time for that.”

Wiggins will probably not achieve his ultimate, unspoken objective – wearing the maillot jaune on the Champs Elyseės – but we can rest assured he will not be completely satisfied ‘merely’ settling for third or second-best.

I will leave the last word for the current yellow jersey and odds-on favourite, Contador, who now recognises Wiggins as perhaps his biggest threat. “Bradley Wiggins did sensationally in the climb up to Verbier and he is going to have to be taken into consideration. I will have to try to put as much distance as possible from him during the next mountain stages, because he is a really strong contender when it comes to the time trials.”

There can be no higher praise than to be recognised as the biggest threat to the best rider in the world. And that’s exactly what Bradley Wiggins now is.

For what it’s worth, my money is on Wiggins defending solidly today, gaining a minute or so on Armstrong, Klöden and his other immediate competitors tomorrow, and then covering only the attacks he really needs to worry about on the way up to the top of Ventoux on Saturday. I’d give him a 60% chance of securing at least third, with maybe a 25% chance of jumping up to second; he won’t catch Contador, barring accident or injury.

Go Wiggo!

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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