Tour de France: Wiggins journeys from dark depths to dazzling peak
Team Sky rider ripped up the game plan and started all over again on gruelling road to Tour glory, writes William Fotheringham
Bradley Wiggins is set to make history today but the greatest victory of his career was born of one of his greatest defeats and one of his deepest disappointments. In 2010, having finished fourth in the 2009 Tour, Wiggins was expected to move forward again with the backing of the newly-formed Team Sky. Instead, he bombed -- compared with the standards he had set himself -- finishing 23rd, while in 2011 he returned to the Tour in similar form to this year, but fell off in the first week, breaking his collarbone.
"I got a severe bollocking," recalled Wiggins of the aftermath of the 2010 Tour, when he met in the autumn with Dave Brailsford, the Sky chief, and British Cycling's head coach, Shane Sutton. "It came down to the way I behaved after the Tour, the way I was racing, the role I was supposed to be fulfilling. I was so far away it was unbelievable. I decided I couldn't carry on like that. 2010 was a year of disappointment and public humiliation," Wiggins said.
"He was looking at a shell of a [racing] life," Sutton said. "There would have been nowhere for him to go. It took him to a tough place. He streamlined what he was doing. He got support on a daily basis and put together a team of people who know what they are doing." That inner circle around Wiggins consists of physiologist Tim Kerrison, the British Cycling doctor Richard Freeman -- formerly of Bolton Wanderers -- and his personal coach Sutton, who uses his racing experience to blend with Kerrison's science.
It is Sutton, for example, who will decide from time to time that his charge needs a respite to spend time with his young family. As Wiggins puts it: "I handed them my body and asked them to get the machine working."
Sutton has said that the key has been communication and compliance to work but another key has been the discovery of Kerrison, a sports scientist from Australia who had trained Olympic swimmers and rowers but knew nothing about cycling when he joined Sky in early 2010 with a brief to find innovative ways of improving performance.
It took Kerrison the best part of 18 months to put his ideas together, helped by the data bank of Wiggins's power outputs for the 2010 Tour, and those of another rider, the Colombian Rigoberto Uran. Last year was largely experimental, but Kerrison discovered one key thing: Wiggins responded well to hard training at altitude. The altitude training camps in 2011 made a real difference -- Wiggins rode to the biggest stage-race win of his career in the Criterium du Dauphine stage race, then kicked on to claim third in the Tour of Spain and silver in the world time trial championships as he recovered from the collarbone fracture sustained in the Tour de France.
For at least half a century, the received wisdom in cycling has been that riders need to race for training. Kerrison and Sutton turned that on its head, opting instead to put Wiggins in selected races in which he would ride flat out. Team Sky have looked totally confident at the front of the bunch defending the yellow jersey -- for the longest period any team have led the race since 1981 -- but this is no coincidence.
Again, Kerrison had the idea that wearing a race leader's jersey ought to become a matter of habit; Sky, and Wiggins, have spent so many days controlling races this season that the coach could justifiably claim the riders were happier defending the jersey than trying to take it.
At Wiggins's training camp in Tenerife, Kerrison showed me a graph on his computer that had a red line representing the power outputs his protégé needed to win the Tour, and a green line showing what he had at a given moment. "As a trainer, you try to make the curves meet, then you prioritise the areas you need." There was specific Tour-related work: efforts when Wiggins was already fatigued, specific steep hill work, sessions that mimicked a mountain stage in the Tour, and a structure that reflected the need to be consistent on a daily basis.
Some observers believe, not without good reason, there is another factor beside sheer hard work that may have helped Wiggins. The creation of a more level playing field due to improved drug testing and the UCI's ban on needles has favoured Wiggins, who is adamant that he will never use drugs.
The opposition may well have struggled to come to terms with the new state of affairs. "His strike rate this year is incredible and that's a good sign," said his former madison partner Rob Hayles. Wiggins's former coach Simon Jones recalled how they would both puzzle at time trials where Wiggins's power output would suggest he should have won. No longer.
There is another thesis that perhaps should do the rounds. When a former Grand Tour winner feels he has no option but to seek time trial advice in Britain -- as I have been told is the case -- that says there must be a lack of expertise in professional cycling's traditional nations.
It could also be suggested that an over-reliance on needles and potions over the years have had two effects: technical expertise has been replaced by doctors and soigneurs, and that in turn has created a 'technology gap', which the British -- having explored every legal area of performance in the past 15 years -- are perfectly placed to fill.
Sunday Indo Sport