Bradley Wiggins could be first British cyclist to win Tour de France

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LONDON (AP) -- When the new Team Sky announced in 2009 its intention to produce a Tour de France winner within five years, everybody laughed. Less than four years later, no one is laughing.

Bradley Wiggins enters cycling's most prestigious three-week race as the man to beat following an impressive season when he completed an unprecedented hat trick of victories.

No British racer has won the Tour de France. But Wiggins, a three-time Olympic champion in the Velodrome who raced the Tour as part of his training for the track, is in top form after becoming the first rider in history to win Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie and the Criterium du Dauphine in one season.

"Since I was 12, I always thought about winning the Tour, but never maybe thought that it would be a reality," said Wiggins ahead of Saturday's Tour prologue in Liege, Belgium.

Wiggins also will compete on home soil at the London Olympics. No other rider, including defending champion Cadel Evans of Australia, has enjoyed such a run of success this season, and he will start the Tour as the leader of the strongest team in the field.

"The team's preparation has been perfectly managed and our form this season gives us a great chance of being successful," Wiggins said. "I've been waiting for this moment for a long time and I'll do everything I can to win the Tour de France."

In the absence of the two best climbers in the world, Spaniard Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, and a route featuring more than 62 miles of time trials, this year's Tour is Wiggins' best chance to improve on his fourth-place finish in 2009. That year, he dropped track to focus on his road career.

Wiggins joined British based team Sky at the end of the 2009 season. After losing weight but maintaining his track power, he aimed for a better Tour result in 2010. But the former Garmin rider finished 24th.

With the help of trainer Tim Kerrison, Wiggins tried the scientific methods of his new team and changed his approach to training, competing in fewer races but always aiming to win.

Wiggins got off to a strong start in 2011 and looked set to make an impact at the Tour. But his hopes were dashed in the seventh stage of the race when a crash knocked him out with a broken collarbone. He rallied with a third place at the Vuelta for his first Grand Tour podium before helping his teammate Mark Cavendish win the road race world title.

The 32-year-old Londoner has consistently improved his road racing.

"I guess the biggest thing for me last year was never dwelling too much on the successes I had and instead be always looking forward to the next target," he said. "I think that's continuing right now. We've spent months looking toward this year and planning for it. And we've not been resting on any laurels."

To help him in his quest for the famed yellow jersey, Wiggins can count on the depth of his team, which put on an impressive display of collective strength during the Dauphine, controlling the race in a manner that was reminiscent of Miguel Indurain's Banesto or Lance Armstrong's US Postal outfits.

During his sixth Tour campaign, Wiggins will be supported by world-class riders such as Edvald Boasson Hagen, Cavendish, Bernhard Eisel, Chris Froome, Richie Porte and Michael Rogers.

"Chris, Mick, and Richie are among our strongest climbers and will all be there to support Bradley in the mountains, but then we've got riders like Christian (Knees) and Kosta (Kanstantsin Siutsou) who have strong engines on the flats, and versatile riders like Edvald and Bernhard who can support Mark in the sprints," Sky boss Dave Brailsford said.

Another positive for Wiggins is Cavendish won't be looking to defend the green jersey he won with the defunct HTC team last year. His main focus this summer is the Olympics road race on July 28, less than one week after the Tour ends in Paris.

"I probably won't win as much personally, in stages, but to be part of a team that holds real ambitions of winning the Tour de France overall, it's an honor for any bike rider," Cavendish said. "In Bradley, we've got the biggest chance we'll ever have as a nation, with a British team and with a British rider. It's exciting to go in and follow that ambition."

Fifty years after Tom Simpson became the first Briton to wear the yellow jersey, Wiggins will roll off the prologue ramp as the bookmakers' favorite. But after putting the finishing touches to his preparations in Tenerife, Spain, where he also trained at altitude, he tried to shake off his favorite tag.

"I still think Cadel is the man to beat," Wiggins said. "He was the winner last year, he's a good time trialist, a good climber, he can win sprints on small mountains, so he without doubt is still the man to beat for this year's Tour. And he wants it, he fights all the time, he never gives up, so for me he's the main man."

Wiggins and Evans are also expected to face off at the London Olympics this summer, with both men among the main contenders for Olympic gold in the time trial on Aug. 1. The big question mark will be whether they can recover from all their Tour efforts, but Wiggins is confident he can successfully tackle both challenges.

"As (coach) Shane Sutton keeps telling me, it's about keeping all our options open for as long as we can," he said. "It's going to be one hell of a challenge but that's part of it as well, part of the drive in doing it. It's certainly going to be interesting."