Paris – Bradley Wiggins looks a virtual certainty to be crowned the first ever British winner of the Tour de France, as riders in the cycling world's most famous race arrive in Paris on the final stage here on Sunday.
An emotional Wiggins hailed a dream come true after sealing victory in Saturday's penultimate stage time-trial and now only an accident preventing him from finishing the race can deny him a place on the top of the podium on the Champs Elysees.
The 32-year-old triple Olympic champion will finish Sunday's final stage to Paris with a 3min 21sec lead over fellow Briton and Sky teammate Chris Froome, with Italian Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas third overall at 6:19.
“It's a dream come true, but I've been working to win this for the past five years. The job is done, almost,” said Wiggins.
In a campaign that was reminiscent of his childhood hero, Spanish legend Miguel Indurain, Wiggins sealed final victory thanks in large part to two time trial wins, with Team Sky providing crucial support in the mountain stages in between.
“It's what I've been aspiring to do for the past few years, and even since I was a child, when I was 12 years old I said I wanted to win the Tour de France,” said Wiggins.
“No one really imagines, at that age, that it's possible. Here I am 20 odd years on and it's a reality now.”
A year after crashing out of the race with a broken collarbone and three years after underlining his yellow jersey credentials with a fourth place finish, Wiggins was finding it hard to come to terms with his achievement.
Going into the final 53.5 km race against the clock between Bonneval and Chartres on Saturday, Wiggins held a lead of 2:05 on Froome, the man who helped pace him up the latter stages of the race's climbs.
Froome, who finished second on the first time trial at 35secs behind Wiggins, this time finished second at 1min 16sec.
“I'm very happy. Our objective was to come here and win the Tour with Bradley, and that's what we have done,” said Froome, who outshone Wiggins on several of the race's tough climbs.
“For me to come second is a big bonus.”
After his injury setback on stage seven last year, Wiggins came into the June 30-July 22 epic determined to make amends.
Although he only took 10secs off defending champion Cadel Evans in the opening prologue won by Swiss Fabian Cancellara, he took 1:43 off the Australian in the stage nine time trial.
When it came to the mountain stages where rivals such as Evans and Nibali were hoping to use their attacking capabilities to make the difference, Sky simply proved too strong.
They came to the Tour with a team of climbers who had trained together at high altitude and knew, thanks to experience and a methodical approach that has seen them exploiting the “marginal gains” that attacks would not get far.
It led to a controlled and at times subdued race that probably did little to attract new fans, but Wiggins believes it showed the sport is far cleaner than it used to be.
On the race, Sky's professionalism was evident to every other team.
Frenchman Thomas Voeckler, who finished fourth overall riding with his modest Europcar team, said: “They designed their team around the demands of the race route. “They've got a really big annual budget which is more than triple ours,” said Voeckler, who this year won two stages and the King of the Mountains polka dot jersey.
“Some people might say their victory was without style and panache but you can't argue with the fact they've finished first and second. Hats off to them.”
Wiggins admitted he came back doubly determined this year.
“I think you need those disappointments to make you stronger,” he said. “2010 was a disastrous Tour really in every way, in the way I handled myself and everything. It's those things that make you or break you.
“Then crashing out last year, sitting at home watching Cadel in Grenoble win the Tour and seeing the sense of what he was going through, that was sort of my motivation. I wanted to feel what he was feeling.” – Sapa-AFP