Wiggins takes Tour with time to spare
BLAGNAC, France (AP) -- Yellow jersey holder Bradley Wiggins once said that to win the Tour de France you have to be good for 21 days.
That looks like one of the rare mistakes Wiggins has made in this three-week, nearly 2,200-mile race. Because with three stages left before the Champs-Elysees finale, Wiggins needs to just hang on and avoid crashing to become Britain's first champion of bicyling's premier race.
Rather than 21 days, Wiggins needed only 18 to effectively lock down the victory. Establishing a comfortable time gap over rivals early on in the race against the clock, Wiggins' specialty, the 32-year-old rider managed his lead for the rest of the long race in what he called a "business-like" and "calculating" manner.
All that was left for Wiggins to do was let his superior Team Sky teammates, a collection of Austrian, Australian, Belarussian, British, German and Norwegian racers, drive such a high pace in the mountains that attacks by other teams became nearly impossible.
Since the start in Liege, Wiggins and team boss Dave Brailsford have repeated that they were taking the race day by day, and that they wouldn't start thinking about Paris until the Eifel Tower was in sight.
Now, all that stands between him and the top of a podium on the Champs-Elysees is Friday's hilly 137-mile stage -- in France's southwest that offers no major difficulty -- and Saturday's final time trial, the discipline Wiggins masters so well he bested four-time World Champion Fabian Cancellara by nearly a minute in the race's first long time trial on July 9.
Cancellara is out of the race now, and Wiggins' next real rival, Italian Vincenzo Nibali, is 2:41 behind. Nibali lost over two minutes to Wiggins in that 25.8-mile race between Arc-et-Senans and Besancon. Barring extraordinary misfortune, Saturday's longer 33.2-mile race should be a mere formality and a chance for Wiggins to pad his victory.
The race's Top 10 hasn't included a new face since stage 10, meaning the entire second half of the race has mainly been about the slow drift of defending champ Cadel Evans down the standings, from second to where he sits now, in sixth place.
After Thursday's stage, Wiggins finally allowed himself to admit that the race was effectively his.
"Once we saw Nibali cracked at the top of Peyresourde and didn't have the danger of him attacking in the final, at that point I knew it was pretty much over," Wiggins said.
The 89.2-mile ride from the southwestern town of Bagneres-de-Luchon to the ski station of Peyragudes featured three hefty ascents in the Pyrenees and an uphill finish.
On the last ascent, Chris Froome, a Kenyan-born Briton, powered ahead with Wiggins struggling to keep on his wheel. But Nibali of Italy, the only real threat to Wiggins' title hopes, was trailing behind.
Alejandro Valverde, the Movistar leader who is back from a two-year doping ban this year, won his third Tour stage in a breakaway. Froome was second and Wiggins was third, both 19 seconds back.
Valverde, with tears in his eyes in the winner's circle, had a rough start to the Tour with at least three crashes. He also sensed Wiggins and Froome closing on him at the end of the stage.
"I went all out," said Valverde, who also won stages in the Tour Down Under and the Paris-Nice races this year. "When I saw there were only 700 meters left, I was really, really happy."
Friday's stage between Blagnac and Brive-la-Gaillarde includes two short, steep climbs in the last 24 miles that could reward a breakaway and open the door to a stage win by a rider other than the pure sprinters.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)