When, at precisely 12.54 on Friday afternoon, race radio crackled with the news that Bradley Wiggins was alone off the front of the Tour peloton, the name Tom Simpson came quickly to British lips.
Forty years ago today, Simpson collapsed and died on the day the Tour tackled the Mont Ventoux; a month ago Wiggins and compatriot David Millar removed their helmets to pay tribute to Simpson’s memory as they rode past the site of his death in the Dauphiné Libéré. The natural conclusion, surely, was that Wiggins wanted to pay a second homage today.
The romantics were to be disappointed. Wiggins admitted tonight that he wasn’t even aware of the anniversary, never mind inspired by it. Neither, he said, was his wife Kath’s birthday a particular spur.
“I’d said that I wanted to have a go one of these days before the Alps, and, when I found myself ahead, I thought, ‘You can’t sit up in the Tour de France.'”
Wiggins had embarked on his grand day out 2km into today’s stage, 199.5km through southern Burgundy towards the Alpine foothills. The Brit quickly built up a big lead despite riding for most of the first hour in the small ring and covering just 36km.
Cofidis directeur sportif Francis Vanlondersele likened it to a “training ride”, but was under no illusions about Wiggins’s victory chances. “It’s a shame that two or three other riders who are a long way down on general classification didn’t go with him. That’s more what we were counting on this morning. To have any hope of finishing the stage alone, he’ll have to open up a gap of 15 minutes.”
Vanlondersele’s wish was Wiggins command, the gap growing to over 17 minutes after 57 kilometres. A sharp reaction from race leader Fabian Cancellara and CSC brought that lead tumbling to under ten minutes by the 100km mark. The slow-death Vanlondersele feared then became almost a foregone conclusion.
After a brief rally in the final 15km, Wiggins’s adventure finally ended 7km from the finish-line. It had lasted 190km and five hours and nine minutes.
“At one point I thought I had a chance, but when the lead started getting to 15 then 10 minutes, I thought, there you go…” he said, exhausted, moments after crossing the line. “Then, with ten kilometres to go, I thought I had a chance again. It was just a shame about that bloody headwind. I was still going at 45kph but I knew that in the bunch they’d be doing 50 to 52. I thought that, if the wind changed direction just slightly, it might just go in my favour, but it wasn’t to be.
“Overall, it wasn’t too bad. I was getting feedback from the team car about how they were riding behind, so there were times when I knew the peloton had made a toilet stop and I could take it easy a bit, then I upped the pace at the end. Unfortunately you can’t choose how many riders you go away with. There were six of us to start with, then I did a kilometre at full tilt, looked around and saw that I was on my own. It’s just one those things … There was a headwind, I was alone but that might be the only chance I get in this Tour to go on my own.”
Intentional or not, it was a fine tribute indeed.
Also see: Stage 6 race report, live report and our podcasts: stage 6 recap and an Astana crash update, as well as Dan Friebe’s blog.