French finally warm to Wiggins

His smug look took up most of the page; was he smiling thinking this was too easy?

Or was he grinning — waiting to jump down the next reporter’s throat who questioned him about doping?

Either way, fans weren’t snuggling up to him and the headline on one of the country’s most-read newspapers, L’Equipe, confirmed same, ‘Attaquez-le’ (’Attack him’), imploring riders to get this Anglophone with the Paul Weller sideburns off the front of their beloved paper.

That was the morning of Wednesday, July 11, four days after he had taken a firm grip of the maillot jaune and the French, as they do, yearned for someone less robotic, less prickly and with more character to be in yellow.

But just over a week later, the oversized font across the top of the front page told the story of a man who had repelled countless attacks, who had been burnt by a flare from a supporter, who had refused to attack when the defending champion suffered three punctures, who welled up when he realised the magnitude of what he was on course to achieve.

The words, ‘La Gentleman’ confirmed that Bradley Wiggins hadn’t changed, but the perception of him had.

And tomorrow, the 32-year-old from Kilburn, north-west London, will ride into Paris resplendent in the yellow jersey before being crowned Britain’s first winner of the world’s most iconic bike race.

And few could argue that anyone else is more deserving. His team-mate Chris Froome looked awesome when he won the first big mountain stage at La Planche des Belles Filles and again on Thursday on the Peyragudes.

But the Tour was won, and lost, in Besancon on Monday, July 16 when Wiggins, the triple Olympic track champion, blasted to victory by over 35 seconds from Froome on the 41.5km time-trial and is likely to do the same today over a course 10km longer.

To put it all into context, Wiggins’ own fourth place in 2009 and Robert Millar’s similar result in 1984 is as good as it has got for Britain in 99 editions of the race. Outside of the irrepressible Bernard Hinault in 1981, no other rider has managed to take the yellow jersey so early and not let go of it.

Though a winning margin of some two minutes after over 82 hours of riding and three weeks might not seem like a convincing argument of Wiggins’ dominance, closer scrutiny of the top 10 details how, one-by-one, the contenders fell away.

Defending champion Cadel Evans conceded over four minutes on Stage 16 and now trails by almost 10 minutes. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas Cannondale) tried time and again, attacking on descents and ascents before cracking on Stage 17, four kilometres from the summit of the Peyragudes. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol) huffed and puffed but the first time-trial saw him lose over three minutes.

To win the Tour you must be consistent for three weeks, every day, every climb. Wiggins has achieved that. Others haven’t.

The Tour hasn’t been without its low points and Frank Schleck’s positive test for a banned diuretic has cast a shadow over Wiggins’ quest for a first title.

What’s interesting is how Schleck, who finished third last year, was having absolutely no impact on the race prior to being pulled by his Radioshack-Nissan team. Schleck, of course, has protested his innocence and his team are supporting him, claiming the substance found (xipamide) is a medication not used by the team and where it came from, they say, is unknown.

Usually, though not always, such maelstroms are consistent with unexplained spikes in performance but Schleck was anonymous since the start and this is, hopefully, another sign that the drug testers appear to be winning the race to weed out the cheats.

The plot thickened last night when the B sample also came back positive and his next move is unknown. However, in accordance with anti-doping rules, cycling’s governing body (UCI) will request the Luxembourg Federation open a disciplinary procedure. Schleck could, of course, be cleared of any wrongdoing if he can either prove the substance was inadvertently ingested, or contrastingly, he ingested it knowingly as part of a treatment for an underlying medical condition.

In a broader context, the Tour does appear to be on the right road. Results point to a cleaner race — at least compared to the dark days of the 1990s and early noughties, possibly the product of the ban on syringes across the board. Long may it continue.

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