Not long ago, all of Britain would cheer if one of their own scored victory in a single leg in the three-week Tour de France, the world’s top cycling event. After a sensational one-two finish Sunday by Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, respectively, Britain owns the race.
British cycling fans lining the Champs Élysées in Paris went wild with joy when Wiggins crossed the finish line in his yellow jersey, becoming the first Briton to win the race since its launch in 1903. “Some dreams come true,” he told the flag-waving crowd.
If that weren’t enough to send the national sporting ego soaring only five days before the start of the Olympics, a third British rider – Mark Cavendish, the “Manx Missile” – won the final, lung-bursting sprint along the Champs Élysées, the fourth time he has done so.
It gets better: Each of the three British riders is also a medal contender in the road races in the London Olympics. If any of them takes gold, Britain will emerge as the world’s dominant force in a sport that for decades had proved a disappointment to a bike-loving country.
Wiggins gave himself the seemingly impossible goal almost a year ago of winning the Tour and an Olympic gold in 2012. By Sunday, his win in the Tour put him halfway toward his goal.
Wiggins’s Tour victory was all but assured on Saturday when he slaughtered the competition in the race’s second last stage – the 53-kilometre time trial.
His winning margin was an astonishing 1 minute 16 seconds. The time-trial win meant that only a catastrophe could prevent his taking the top spot on Sunday’s final leg, an orchestrated romp into Paris before 250,000 cycling fans.
Sir Chris Hoy, the British Olympic sprint champion, saluted Wiggins’s Tour victory as “the greatest achievement by any British sports person ever.”
Hoy’s praise did not seem like hyperbole. British sports commentators put it on the same pedestal as Roger Bannister running the mile in less than four minutes in 1954, and England’s World Cup soccer victory in 1966. Before Wiggins came along, the best Britain could muster in the Tour was a fourth-place finish by Robert Millar, the Scottish “king of the mountains” climber, in 1984, and Wiggins’s own fourth in 2009.
With the Tour out of the way, the focus for the British riders – Wiggins, Froome and Cavendish, all members of the Tour’s killer Team Sky – shifts to the Olympics, whose first medal event is the men’s 250-kilometre road race on Saturday.
Cavendish, 27, is favoured to win the road race. He is the 2011 world road-race champion, and the French sports newspaper L’Équipe voted him the fastest sprinter in cycling history. His sprinting speed has been described as “freakish.”
For Cavendish, the Tour mixed pain with pleasure because Team Sky’s primary role was to ensure that Wiggins would nab the yellow jersey. In London on Saturday, the situation will be reversed. Cavendish’s Team Sky teammates will make sure he is well positioned for the final sprint in front of Buckingham Palace.
While Cavendish is the punters’ top pick for victory, he will have formidable competition in the form of the Australian team and Victoria’s own Ryder Hesjedal, winner of this year’s Giro d’Italia.
Hesjedal, the first Canadian to win the Giro, dropped out of the Tour de France after a bruising crash on July 7 and there was some doubt he would recover in time for the Olympics. But he has pronounced himself fit and ready for the big Saturday event. Hesjedal is barely mentioned in the British sporting press as a potential medalist, but his surprise victory in the Giro means he cannot be ruled out.
Hesjedal will also compete in the time trial on Aug. 1 against Wiggins and Froome, either of whom could win gold. If Wiggins blasts to victory in the time trial, his gold-medal tally will rise to four. He won two golds in the track events in the Beijing Games and one in Athens in 2004.
The Britons’ competitors will gamble that these three athletic wonders will be burnt out after three gruelling weeks in the Tour saddle, with only six days to recover before the Olympic road race. But the rivals shouldn’t count on their astounding stamina and strength fading. Britain is on a high after Wiggins’s Tour victory. Wiggins, Cavendish and Froome are poised to make that high even more intense at the Olympics.