PARIS – Twenty-three years ago, Bradley Wiggins marveled as Greg LeMond blazed a trail as America’s first Tour de France winner. Now, he has blazed his own.
The 32-year-old from gritty northwest London became Britain’s first winner of cycling’s greatest race on Sunday, ending a 75-year drought for his country with an imperial conquest of the roads in cross-Channel neighbor France.
Wiggins had locked up the yellow jersey a day earlier by winning the final time-trial and Sunday’s ride onto the Champs-Elysees was largely ceremonial for him.
But putting the coveted shirt to work one last time, he added a touch of class by providing a leadout to Sky teammate and fellow Briton Mark Cavendish who gained his third Tour stage victory – the 23rd of his career – in a sprint. The Isle of Man native is a main contender to win road race gold at the Olympics in London, which has been a hovering presence over the peloton in this Tour.
Wiggins congratulated his teammates after crossing the line, hugged his wife, and clutched the hands of their two children. A soprano sang “God Save The Queen”, and Wiggins thanked the crowd with a touch of British humor.
“Cheers, have a safe journey home, don’t get too drunk,” he quipped after hoisting the winner’s bouquet, with the Arc de Triomphe behind him.
“It’s been a magical couple of weeks for the team and for British cycling,” Wiggins said. “Some dreams come true. My mother over there, she’s now – her son has won the Tour de France.”
Then, with a Union Jack around his neck like a scarf, Wiggins sipped Champagne for the processional lap on the famed Paris avenue, trailed by his son with “Allez Wiggo” – Go Wiggo – written on his cheeks.
This 99th Tour will be remembered for successes of other Britons too, like all-rounder Christopher Froome, who was second overall, Cavendish and Scottish veteran David Millar, who won seven stages between them, a Tour record for Britain.
Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali rounded out the podium in third. France’s Thomas Voeckler won the polka-dot jersey for best climber, Peter Sagan of Slovakia takes home the green jersey for best sprinter and Tejay van Garderen, a 23-year-old American, won the white jersey given to the best young rider.
It was a race of disappointment for Cadel Evans of Australia, who struggled in the climbs and failed to repeat his 2011 Tour victory. And a swan song for George Hincapie of the United States, who set the record of 17 Tour participations.
Wiggins had come into the race as the favorite, but he knew all too well how anything can happen over more than 2,100 miles of racing over three weeks. Crashes, sickness and doping scandals all thinned the pack. Questions were rife about the unity of his powerful Sky team – he put those to rest.
His victory was all the more remarkable because it culminated the transformation of Wiggins from three-time Olympic champion on the track to road-race star. His early years had given him the sustained power for the Tour time-trial – which he dominated twice this year – but his ability to scale Alps and Pyrenees ascents was in question. There too, Wiggins came through.
His victory for Britain was no tiny feat. It’s not just the first British victory, but the first podium finish – and this year, Britain has two – since Britons began riding in the race in 1937. A total of 59 have competed since then.
Wiggins, who was fourth in 2009 and 24th in 2010, came in with a thirst for victory after crashing out last year. He showed superb form, with three stage-race victories this season. And this layout was about as favorable as it could come for him: Heavy on time-trials, lighter – relatively – on climbs.
Sky was methodical in its march to victory – evoking at times some uncomfortable comparisons with the dominant teams of Lance Armstrong. The seven-time Tour champion was at times a presence in the background at this race, with news of his battle against U.S. doping charges that threaten his legacy. Four of his former teammates who were riding the Tour came under a media spotlight amid a news report they had struck deal with USADA.
This Tour, also, took its licks from doping.
But if this year’s Tour was boring compared to others in recent years Wiggins said it may be because the sport is changing amid the fight against doping, and that fans perhaps should not expect as many incredible performances as in years past.