Wiggins Tour victory is a headache for Team Sky

By SportUK 20/07/2012 12:25

Bradley Wiggins looks set to make history by becoming the first British winner of the Tour de France, but Simon MacMichael believes his triumph makes Team Sky's future problematic.

Bradley Wiggins (AP Photo-Laurent Rebours)

With Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins set to become the first British winner of the Tour de France on Sunday with team-mate Chris Froome second, sore heads are guaranteed in Paris come Monday morning. For the team’s management, though, the headache could last a year.


Forget the arguments over whether Wiggins or Froome is the stronger rider. In 12 months’ time, Sky is likely to be chasing two distinct and arguably incompatible goals – defending the title Wiggins is close to winning, and regaining the green jersey for Mark Cavendish.


The first goes to the Tour’s overall winner, the rider finishing the three-week race in the shortest time, the second to the man with most points awarded for placing high on stage finishes and intermediate sprints. The scoring system favours sprinters like Cavendish.


Challenging for both isn’t impossible – Tour debutant Peter Sagan is runaway leader of this year’s points classification, while his Liquigas-Cannondale team-mate Vincenzo Nibali is third overall.


Aiming to win them from the outset is another matter, though, not achieved since 1997. But Sky must do it if they’re to keep their star riders happy. It’s partly the price of success. Successful sportsmen have strong personalities; teams have fallen apart due to similar conflicts.


While road cycling is very much a team sport, the record books only show the winning rider’s name. That’s like the winning goalscorer’s name being engraved on the FA Cup.


This year, Cavendish’s focus isn’t on the Tour but winning gold in next week’s Olympic road race. He’s lost weight and changed his training to prepare for the London 2012 course.


The 27-year-old won the green jersey last year with former team HTC-Highroad, taking his Tour stage tally to 20 in just four years. His strike rate is phenomenal in those stages where he’s contested the sprint.


But when he signed for Sky for 2012, many wondered how the team could challenge for the yellow and green jerseys. Because of the Olympics, the question remains unanswered.


True, Cavendish talked before the Tour about defending green and won an early stage. But an opening week crash saw Kanstantsin Siutsou, expected to help Wiggins in the mountains, suffer a broken leg. Edvald Boasson Hagen, set to support Cavendish in flatter stages, has therefore worked harder for Wiggins than perhaps originally intended.


While road cycling is very much a team sport, the record books only show the winning rider’s name. That’s like the winning goalscorer’s name being engraved on the FA Cup.


At HTC-Highroad, everything revolved around about making sure Cavendish reached the business end of a Tour sprint stage in the best possible condition to go for the win.


Team-mates sheltered him from the wind to conserve his energy, chased down breaks and kept him safe until that moment he launched himself for the line.


This year, it’s Cavendish who’s performed the role described in cycling parlance as domestique, or servant.


Sky now have 12 months to plan how to defend the yellow jersey, while ensuring Cavendish has sufficient support to have a realistic tilt at the green one.


As someone who understands teamwork – when he wins, his first words are to thank his colleagues – he’s fully embraced his supporting role, including pace-setting and fetching water bottles for team mates. It’s a side of Cavendish not seen before in the Tour.


His and other Sky riders’ work has put Wiggins in a commanding position. They’ve controlled the race, setting a pace in mountain stages that makes it near impossible for rivals to attack. Wiggins also won a time trial midway through the race, with Froome second. It’s been a supreme example of teamwork.


Today Cavendish got his second win of this year’s race and he’s looking good for a third on Sunday on the Champs-Élysées, but that’s partly because, with Wiggins’ yellow jersey more or less in the bag, Sky are now free to cut their star sprinter loose. The point about the difficulty of chasing both jerseys from the start of the race still stands.


We don’t know the route of next year’s Tour yet, but it may feature less time trialling and more mountains. Contenders will include Alberto Contador, currently banned, and Andy Schleck, who is injured.


It could be Froome, not Wiggins, who leads Sky next year if the route better suits his abilities on tougher climbs. But it’s difficult to see the team leader getting the same support as this time, with Cavendish, recently named the greatest sprinter in Tour history, demanding help to win back that green jersey.


After Wiggins crashed out last year with a broken collarbone, he and Sky started planning how to win this year’s race. That work’s paying off. Barring disaster, he’ll win the Tour on Sunday.


Sky now have 12 months to plan how to defend the yellow jersey, while ensuring Cavendish has sufficient support to have a realistic tilt at the green one.


I’m certainly not knocking Sky, far from it. They’ve ridden a great race. Their tactics in getting Wiggins into yellow and keeping him there have been near flawless.


Many scoffed when Sky launched in 2010 with the aim of producing a British Tour de France winner inside five years. They’re now set to achieve that two years early, and with a British runner-up too.


But I’m not convinced they can successfully challenge for both yellow and green. This year, the Olympics means it’s a less pressing issue. Next year there won’t be that diversion or excuse.


Simon MacMichael is news and racing editor at the award-winning cycling website, road.cc. You can follow him on Twitter @simonmacmichael



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