This may come as a surprise given that Mark Cavendish has already pocketed two stage wins, and after Dave Millar’s ill-fated heroics on stage 6 to Barcelona, but the British rider on everyone's mind and lips as the Tour de France approaches the Pyrenees is Bradley Wiggins.
Buoyed by some good performances in the mountains of the Giro, the Wigg has been talking up his chances of a top 20 or even top 15 finish in the Tour.
If this were a slimming contest, Maida Vale’s finest would already be in the yellow jersey. Seven kilos lighter than at the same time last year, in Girona yesterday morning, Brad escaped most journalists' attention simply because you needed 3D glasses to spot him. Had Carly Simon switched the lyrics of her '70s smash hit from “You’re so vain” to “You’re a vein”, trust me, the mystery of the song’s subject matter would have ended the moment Wiggins stepped out of the Garmin team bus.
A few hundred metres away, Wiggins' directeur sportif Lionel Marie was browsing the morning papers and already looking forward to today’s mountain blockbuster to Andorra. "Brad has excellent form,” Marie told me. “The Giro was a good test of his ability on steep climbs. On the first summit finish of the Tour there’s always the problem of switching from the big to the small chainring, but the fact that this year’s Tour has been a real race since the start should compensate for that. The riders’ nervous tension is already high."
Of Wiggins’s GC hopes, Marie added, “Oh, we think he can go top 15 or top 10. Vande Velde, David Millar and Brad are our protected riders in the mountains.”
A few minutes later, the Wigg, or rather “The Vein”, spoke of his excitement about today’s stage. He said his only tactic on the 10km climb to Andorra would be to stick with the leaders. He expected Alberto Contador to take a different approach.
“I think Contador will explode the race,” Wiggins said. “I’m not sure it’s the right thing for him to do, because getting yellow will put a lot of pressure on his team, but that’s what I can see happening. He has two-and-a-half weeks to win the Tour.
“I already think it’s a two horse race between Lance and Contador; that the race is finished for Evans and Menchov. Contador is going to win, so he could wait, but logic tells me that he’ll attack on Andorra. The guy can’t help himself. He just loves to race.”
The last time the Tour visited Andorra was in 1997. That day, Jan Ullrich seemed to seal the destiny of not just one but the next 10 Tours. You can read about that day and why its significance stretched way beyond Ullrich’s career in the August issue of Procycling.
As for what it told us about the Arcalis climb and what we can look forward to today, one of the men who raced in '97, Frankie Andreu, said yesterday that we shouldn’t expect the huge time gaps that Ullrich cleaved open 11 years ago.
“The bottom is steep but then it flattens out and becomes pretty gradual towards the top," Andreu told me. "If you look at the general classification, you’d say that Evans or Menchov has to attack on that bottom section. To anyone who’s left behind, though, I’d say keep your rhythm and you could well haul them back towards the top. Be patient. Either way, I don’t think we’ll see huge time gaps. Maybe 30 or 40 seconds between the GC guys. But it should be exciting.” Indeed it should.