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Tour de France history: Bradley Wiggins secures Sky’s first Tour title

In-depth
29 Jun 2022
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In 2012 Bradley Wiggins became the first British male to win the Tour de France, claiming Team Sky’s first win in the process

Words Giles Belbin Photography L’Equipe

As the Tour de France circus descended on the Belgian city of Liège for the 2012 Grand Départ, two riders headed most observers’ lists of contenders for the overall win: Australia’s Cadel Evans and Britain’s Bradley Wiggins.

While defending champion Evans had enjoyed a measured build-up to the race – finishing first at the Critérium International and securing a podium finish at the Critérium du Dauphiné – Wiggins had been on fire, rewriting cycling’s history books before a single pedal had been turned at the Tour.

Prior to 2012 no rider had ever won Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné in a single season. Then came Wiggins. Between March and June 2012 he was utterly dominant, winning those three races in the space of three months.

Not even Eddy Merckx or Jacques Anquetil had managed this feat – Paris-Nice and the Dauphiné in the same year, yes, but not Romandie as well. Wiggins stood alone. The only question was, had he burned too hot, too soon?

Tentative Tour beginnings

Wiggins’ induction to the Tour had been inglorious. His first ride with Cofidis in 2006 saw him finish 124th; his second in 2007 ended with him throwing his Cofidis kit into a bin at Pau airport.

Teammate Cristian Moreni had failed a doping control that led to the entire team being withdrawn from the race four days from Paris.

Two years later Wiggins was back, riding for Garmin-Slipstream. Entering as a support rider for Christian Vande Velde he scaled the Alps in the company of Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck and Carlos Sastre – in other words some of the sport’s very best climbers – to finish a surprising fourth (Wiggins was later promoted to third place when Lance Armstrong’s results were wiped from the record books).

This prompted newly formed Team Sky to pursue him for their 2010 launch, publicly declaring their intent to win the Tour within five years, and stating they wanted Wiggins as leader.

His initial Tour performances for the team – 24th (later promoted to 22nd) in 2010, then a forced retirement in 2011 after breaking a collarbone despite early good form – didn’t match his 2009 showing.

But results elsewhere, including a 2011 overall win at the Dauphiné and a podium finish at the 2011 Vuelta, proved his potential as a genuine Tour contender.

A perfect year

In July 2012, and with those three history-making wins already in the bag, Wiggins was ready to tackle the Tour again. Just as importantly, so was his team.

Sky had learned much over the previous two seasons and the squad’s performance at the Dauphiné a month earlier had been particularly impressive. With a well-drilled team and a leader in the form of his life, everything was set up for a sustained Wiggins offensive.

The Sky leader rode a strong prologue in Liège to finish second behind Fabian Cancellara while putting a handful of seconds into the other main contenders.

Then, after surviving a nervous opening week of flat stages across northern France, Wiggins got down to business on the slopes of the race’s first summit finish: La Planche des Belles Filles.

The climb had been identified ahead of time by both Wiggins and the team as the first real opportunity for him to take the yellow jersey.

‘The goal for the stage was to hit the climb… with Mick [Michael Rogers] on the front, then Richie [Porte], Froomie and me,’ Wiggins writes in My Time.

‘Mick would go as hard as he could, which would probably be a kilometre and a half, Richie would do the same thing, then Froomie. Eventually we’d get to the summit and there shouldn’t be many other guys left with us.’

Watch the video of the stage and you can see the plan was executed perfectly. As Sky played out their tactics on the climb, with Rogers leading the charge, rival after rival fell away.

With 3km to go the leading group was down to nine; with 1.5km to go it was five: Froome, Wiggins, Evans, Vincenzo Nibali and Rein Taaramäe.

In the final kilometre an Evans attack was countered by Froome, with Wiggins marking the Australian. In the end Froome took the stage and Wiggins took yellow.

From that point Wiggins never looked like losing the race lead, winning both time-trials with ease and defending stoutly in the mountains.

He even had the strength to help lead out teammate Mark Cavendish, who was wearing the rainbow jersey of World Champion, to a famous stage win on the Champs-Élysées.

Battle within

Wiggins’ final margin in Paris was more than three minutes over teammate Froome, despite an element of infighting within the squad. On the stage to La Toussuire, Froome had ridden so aggressively that he had to be ordered back to his leader.

‘It was a little bit like having a battle plan going into a war, all being in a trench together, firing your guns at the enemy, and then one of your troops going off and doing his own thing somewhere else in another trench, completely unprompted, unplanned and contrary to your original plan,’ Wiggins later wrote.

But nevertheless, Team Sky had their maiden Tour win and Bradley Wiggins was the toast of Paris having become the first British man to win the Tour de France.

Ten days later Wiggins sat on a throne in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace. As the cameras of the world’s media clicked away so the skinny figure lifted the fingers on both of hands into a ‘V for Victory’ sign. He had just won Olympic gold, taking the individual time-trial by 42 seconds.

His adoring public watched on, many wearing the paper cut-outs of his famous trademark sideburns that had been distributed by two of Britain’s tabloid newspapers.

There, in the shadow of King Henry VIII’s former palace at the end of a remarkable run, Wiggins was firmly established as British cycling royalty.