The 99th Tour de France gets underway in the Belgian town of Liege on Saturday with 198 riders competing for the Yellow Jersey over a course of around 3500km. In France, all eyes are on Britain’s Bradley Wiggins as he bids to make history.
Cyclist Bradley Wiggins will pedal across the start line on Saturday, aiming to make history by becoming the first British rider to win the Tour de France.
After winning Olympic gold medals in track cycling, Wiggins’ achievements in the saddle are well-known and appreciated back in the UK.
But across the channel Wiggins has been seen as somewhat of a ‘novice’ in the world of road cycling - until this year, that is. Despite the presence of the reigning champion, Australian Cadel Evans in the line up, it is Wiggins who is the subject of all the talk in France as well as a fair few column inches in the country’s press.
And the rise of the 32-year-old Belgian born Londoner has come as a surprise to many Gallic connoisseurs of the sport.
“If someone had said to me three years ago that Bradley Wiggins would be favourite for the 2012 Tour, I would have said ‘You are dreaming’,” said Eurosport’s Laurent Vergne.
But Vergne admits that as cyclists make the final preparations before the Grand Depart, “the name of Wiggins is on everyone’s lips.”
Jacky Durand, a retired French professional cyclist, has also been forced to reconsider his view. “Ten years ago I would not even have bet one euro that Wiggins could win a Tour de France, and neither would he,” Durand told Le Parisien.
Wiggins earns respect
Wiggins does not bring with him a notable Tour de France pedigree. Although he finished an impressive fourth in 2009, he has never been on the podium, finished a lowly 23rd in 2010 and crashed out last year with a broken collarbone.
It is, of course, not by chance that Wiggins is now talked about as a serious contender. His impressive form coming into the race has demanded the cycling world sit up and take notice.
He made history once already this year by becoming the first man to win the Paris-Nice race, the Tour of Romandie and the Critérium Dauphiné race all in the same year. He also finished a very credible third in last year’s Tour of Spain.
“After winning those three races, the whole of the cycling world in France is talking about him. He is undoubtedly the hot contender,” journalist Christian Chambres, who will be covering this year’s tour for Eurosport, told FRANCE 24.
“It is quite strange to be talking about a British cyclist as we have never had a clear favourite from Britain before,” Chambres said.
Just like in his home country, those journalists who cover the sport in France have not always warmed to Wiggins, who has been accused of being aloof, even arrogant. But that relationship has improved in recent months as Wiggins has steadily earned respect for what he has achieved.
“When he first came to road cycling, he was always considered as a little novice,” Chambres told FRANCE 24. “He is less accessible than he used to be, but that is because he doesn’t want anything to distract him from his aim and we understand that.”
“If he wins the Tour de France, people in France will applaud him because he will have proved over the three weeks that he was the strongest,” Chambres said.
A course made for Wiggins
Wiggins has had a slight helping hand in his quest for glory by the organisers of this year’s course.
Tour Director Christian Prudhomme has more than doubled the distance dedicated to time trials - when the cyclists race against the clock over shorter distances, to around 100km in total.
As arguably the best time-trialer in the field, this will play in favour of Wiggins and represent his best chance of making up time on the other riders, who will be stronger than the Briton in the mountain stages.
French daily Liberation said the time trials were like “blank cheques to the British cyclist.”
Wiggins’ chief rival Evans is also a strong time trailer, which means although the Tour will be raced over a distance of around 3,500km, it could be settled over the 100km dedicated to time trials.
“Tour de France – a Tour for the Anglophones,” read the headline in daily Liberation newspaper on Friday, alluding to the duel between Wiggins and Evans.
But the wind is not blowing only in Wiggins’ favour, as Prudhomme is promising this year’s course will see the “steepest mountain slopes in the Tour’s history”, which will favour the strong climbers among the riders.
Wiggins chances are no doubt helped by the absence of two would be favourites - Andy Schleck, who is out through injury, and Alberto Contador, who is suspended after failing a drugs test.
Wiggins cannot afford a slow star. Saturday’s 6.4km time trial in Liege offers him an immediate opportunity to try on the yellow jersey, which he hopes he will still be wearing when he rides along the Champs-Elysée at the climax of the race on July 22.
Wiggins himself was in bullish mood on the eve of the tour.
"I can't account for where anyone else is at. I'm better than I've ever been. And if that makes me one of the favourites, then fantastic,” Wiggins said.
"Paris is a long way off, we saw that last year. I was in hospital after seven days. Let's just hope I can stay upright this year and finish the job."