Chasing down history: Wiggins' Tour quest

Story highlights

  • The Tour de France is an annual cycling race which was first held in 1903
  • The 99th edition of the race began on June 30 and will finish on July 22
  • American cyclist Lance Armstrong won the race seven times between 1995-2005
  • Bradley Wiggins is the current leader and looking to become Britain's first winner

It has been a bittersweet month for British sport. Andy Murray's bid to become the nation's first Wimbledon men's singles champion since 1936 was derailed, while the England football team suffered penalty-shootout heartache at the recent Euro 2012 tournament.

But across the channel there is one Briton at the forefront of his sport who, through a series of peerless performances, is in line to become the UK's first Tour de France winner.

Bradley Wiggins, with his mutton-chop sideburns and slim physique, does not instantly come across as an elite athlete.

But the Sky Procycling rider is dominating the 2012 Tour de France, picking up the first stage win of his career between Arc et Senans and Besancon with an astonishing display of power to open up a lead of one minute, 53 seconds over second-placed defending champion Cadel Evans.

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"It is Bradley Wiggins' Tour de France to lose," according to former British cyclist and now commentator Paul Sherwen, who made his debut in the race in 1978.

"He could have been on the podium last year and he crashed out on stage seven. This year he got the yellow jersey on stage seven."

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Wiggins finished the 2009 race in fourth position, equaling the best finish by a British rider -- first achieved by Scotland's Robert Millar in 1984.

His preparation for the 99th edition of the Tour has been both impressive and meticulous, and has left nothing to chance.

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Earlier this year, the Belgium-born rider became the first man to win the Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine stage races in the same season, while also embarking on a number of high-altitude training camps to prepare his body stands for the rigors of the French cols in the Alps and the Pyrenees.

"There's a long way to go," Sherwen told CNN ahead of Thursday's 10th stage. "We've seen 20 riders leave the Tour through injury, I have never seen that before.

"Hopefully all the bad luck and bad crashes are behind the Tour, and hopefully Bradley won't have any."

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If Wiggins wanted an example of just how quickly a challenge in the prestigious race can unravel, he need look no further than the first Briton to wear the "maillot jaune," Tommy Simpson.

The charismatic Simpson, who raced for Peugeot and could on occasion be seen carrying a cane umbrella when he wasn't on a bike, was sixth after the first week of the 1967 race but a stomach bug hindered his challenge.

Simpson, the victim of heat exhaustion and amphetamines taken to enhance performance, died on the slopes of Mount Ventoux in southern France, during the 12th stage of the 1967 race.

Half a century later British cycling is in a very different place, with its riders no longer having to go abroad in search of a professional racing career.

And the team that Wiggins cycles for -- The Sky Procycling team -- is now the dominant force at the Tour, having been established in the wake of Team GB's success at the 2008 Olympics. Sky's lineup includes the sport's top sprinter Mark Cavendish as well as Wiggins' heir apparent Chris Froome, who is third on the Tour.

Gold medals from Wiggins in the 4km individual pursuit and the team pursuit on the track in Beijing propelled Britain to the top of the cycling medal table four years ago.

British Cycling performance director Dave Brailsford formed the country's first professional team in 2009 and Sky Procycling made its Tour de France debut in 2010.

"Up until recently, we had to expatriate ourselves to race professionally," explained Sherwen. "Live on our own, survive on our own and ride as part of a French, Italian or Belgian team.

"Nowadays, the Americans have professional teams, we've now a got a British team on the international circuit and the Australians have got their own professional team.

"It gives youngsters something more to aim at. I'm not saying it's easier, but, in English soccer, you've got Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool and you can dream of playing for one of those teams as a kid.

"Now kids riding their bikes in England can dream of getting into a professional team and getting into the Tour de France. It's an attainable dream."

Brailsford's plan was to produce a British Tour winner within five years, though. Wiggins could be set to deliver ahead of schedule.

"The perception of Team Sky is very good," said Sherwen. "They are already comparing it to Lance Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service Team (with which he won five of his seven Tour de France wins between 1999 and 2004.)

"Sky made mistakes originally, but they have learned from those mistakes and corrected them."

After the culmination of the Tour on Paris' Champs Elysees on July 22, Wiggins will turn his attention to a home Olympic Games in London where he will compete in the time trial event.

A historic win in France could provide Wiggins, British cycling and the nation's sports fans with a timely boost ahead of London's third Olympic Games.

"If Bradley could win the Tour de France this year it would be absolutely huge," said Sherwen.

"If he could win the Tour in an Olympic year, with the Games being in London, it would double or even treble cycling's exposure."