LIÈGE, Belgium (AFP) — It has been a long time in coming, but Bradley Wiggins says he is revved up to start what he believes is a credible bid to be crowned Britain’s first Tour de France champion.
The fourth-place finisher in 2009, Wiggins will start the 99th edition as the favorite thanks to a stunning year that has seen him win four major stage races.
For Team Sky’s leader, it’s a far cry from five years ago, when police escorted him and his Cofidis team off the race. The team withdrew voluntarily after Cristian Moreni’s positive doping test.
“I haven’t had this much attention since we got chucked off the Tour in Pau in 2007 because someone tested positive,” Wiggins said Friday. “It’s nice to be in this position, for all the right reasons.”
Now the only bona-fide challenger to reigning champion Cadel Evans (BMC), the 32-year-old Londoner still can’t quite believe he could be about to emulate his childhood heroes.
“It’s the stuff of dreams, really, for me. As a child, being a big fan of the sport, I never imagined that one day I’d be a favorite for the Tour de France,” he said.
“Kids from Kilburn don’t become favorites for the Tour. You either become a postman, a milkman, or you’re working at (bookmakers) Ladbrokes. To be in this position now and emulating some of my heroes, like Miguel Indurain … it’s amazing.
“In England it’s football and every kid’s dream is to lift the FA Cup at Wembley. This is my Wembley. That is what it means to me.”
Before 2009, Wiggins was primarily known for the track-cycling prowess that made him a three-time Olympic champion. He since has morphed into one of the best stage racers of his generation.
This year’s race might be missing Alberto Contador, currently banned for doping, and injured Luxembourger Andy Schleck, but given his performances this past year Wiggins would still be a strong contender even if they were here.
Having flopped with a 23rd place overall in 2010 on his debut with Sky, he crashed out of the race in 2011 following a stage-7 crash that left him with a broken collarbone.
He rebounded in style to finish third in the Vuelta a España, helped Mark Cavendish win the world road race title and took silver in the time trial at the same championships.
Wiggins also has claimed three major stage races since a breakthrough victory at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June 2011 — Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie and a successful defense of his Dauphiné title earlier this month.
Those experiences, he says, have given him the belief that he has what it takes to make Tour history for Britain.
“Leading a race now isn’t as emotional a toll on me as it was last year in the Dauphiné,” he said. “You can’t ride around Lancashire with a yellow jersey on and get that same experience as doing it in a race.
“I’m in this position because I’ve won this year, and that’s a reassuring position to be in.
“I’m sure Cadel’s not looking at me and I’m not looking at him. He’s the winner last year so for me he’s still the favorite, and it’s for me to try and take it from him.
“But I would never underestimate anyone in the Tour de France.”
After weeks and months of speculation, Wiggins says he can’t wait to get the wheels in motion.
And this time, he fully intends to finish.
“The next three weeks are what’s going to decide this Tour, and not what you say,” said Wiggins, who says the scientific data concerning his form couldn’t be any more promising.
“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 favorites, then fantastic.
“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.”