By Austin Murphy
July 17, 2012
Bradley Wiggins leads the Tour de France now, but he has to survive the stages through the Pyrenees, known for breaking down riders and shuffling overall standings.

Two-thousand, seven-hundred and sixty-one kilometers down, only 736 to go in this year's Tour De France. The race has been characterized so far by carnage concentrated within a few squads (Rabobank has been reduced to four riders from its original nine; Euskaltel-Euskadi to five; Garmin-Sharp to six), carpet tacks on the road in Stage 14 and a powerful British infusion. Team Sky's Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome sit first and second overall, and their black-clad outriders are controlling the race in a way not seen since the heyday of Lance Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Service. If this Tour were a tea, it would be Earl Grey.

Just 736 more klicks! That's nothing to these guys, right?

Well, not really. There seems to be a logarithmic distillation of suffering in the third week of a grand tour. Thousand-yard stares are the norm. The riders are shelled, spent, so tired that even eating becomes a labor.

"You know you need to eat, but food doesn't taste good," says Garmin-Sharpe's Christian Vande Velde, who ends up slathering his cereal and breakfast rolls with maple syrup or Nutella to make it more interesting. "You know you should sleep," he says, "but you're almost too tired to sleep, if that makes any sense." These riders always look gaunt; now they look plain scary.

Between them and Paris is the small matter of the Pyrenees. Wednesday's 197km Stage 16 kicks them in the teeth shortly after their wake-up call: the bunch will hit the early slopes of the "beyond category" Col d'Aubisque around kilometer 30, followed by the Tourmalet and two more ugly ascents before punching the clock in Bagneres-de-Luchon, hard by the Spanish border.

Some of the drama has been drained from the second-to-last stage, Saturday's 53.5km time trial into Chartres. By crushing the field in the Tour's first time trial, Wiggins proved he's going better than anyone in the world right now in the Race of Truth. Which means that if you're going to watch a single stage of this year's Tour, you might want to tune in tomorrow. Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondal, Cadel Evans of BMC and Jurgen Van den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol, who sit third, fourth and fifth, must force the action if they hope to move up in the standings. They must, as NBC's Phil Liggett might say, "Come out and play."

What will that look like? Watch for Nibali's teammates to force the pace early tomorrow. If Ivan Basso and Peter Sagan can break free of the bunch on the first climb, Nibali can later launch an attack himself, bridging up to his teammates.

If Nibali's lieutenants fail him, says Vande Velde, watch for the Italian to join forces with either Evans or Van den Broeck, with that axis of riders trying to push Wiggins into red.

Allan Peiper, Garmin's salty Director of Competition, wouldn't be surprised to see a tactic tried by BMC and Liquigas as recently as last June's Dauphine. With time running out to overtake the Brit, both Nibali and Evans and three teammates apiece attacked on twisting, technical descent of the Grand Colombier.

"They gapped the Sky guys immediately," recalls Peiper. The men in black were forced to chase full gas to bring Nibali back, with a solitary Wiggins burying himself to bridge across the final 15 seconds. Nibali tried the same thing on the Colombier in Stage 10 of this Tour. Wiggins let him go -- not so much because he's not a skilled descender, but rather, because he doesn't need to take unnecessary risks -- patiently pulling him back over the final 30 kilometers.

"I wonder if [Liquigas] shouldn't have saved that card for this week," says Peiper. "Because now the element of surprise is gone."

Without saying it in so many words, Wiggins' attitude is: Bring it on. "We could sit here all day and talk about scenarios," he remarked at today's Team Sky press conference. "We'll just see how it play out on the road."

He and his mates had been escorted to a long table on the lawn at the posh Parc Beaumont hotel. They wore matching shorts and white, Team Sky t-shirts. A media officer requested that reporters ask all the riders questions, not just Wiggins. He was ignored.

Did Wednesday's foray into the Pyrenees have the look of a heroic stage? "It's just another day in the Tour, really," said Wiggins, who wasn't being willfully contrarian so much as he was sharing the mindset that has made Sky successful. There's very little time to anything other than "go through the process."

"We get up, we eat, drink, s---, ride," eat, get a massage, "and go back to bed."

Even on the rest day, he pointed out, their schedules were full. "Here it is, three o'clock, and we're still here, doing this" as he's being debriefed by reporters. "We haven't had any rest yet."

Wiggins was asked to comment on the supreme difficulty of the Tourmalet, with its onerous length (19 kilometers) and storied history of dashing hopes and rearranging standings. What did he think of that legendary mountain?

"It goes uphill, like all of them." Noticing that his questioner hoped for a more elaborate answer, he added, "It's very difficult." Another journo tried a similar track, but got a similar answer. "They all go uphill. It doesn't matter what name's on 'em."

To describe this team as blinkered is to understate the case. They are trying to win a bike race. If they have to do it in somewhat un-dramatic fashion, they make no apologies. There was Team Sky's Bernard Eisel at the front of the peloton midway through yesterday's stage, semaphoring for the bunch to slow down. A group of riders had escaped up the road. Normally in this case, teams with strong sprinters would organize a chase, to deny the escapees their glory. But on this day, Sky was in no mood to chase down a breakaway. So it rode en bloc in front, discouraging other squads from giving chase. None did.

There will be no such acquiescence in the Pyrenees. For the men who would break into the top 10, or elbow their way onto -- or up -- the podium, their last, best chance is upon them.

Wiggins knows this, and is okay with it. "What is there to fear? Ultimately it's just a bike race ... Whatever happens, happens."

That said, he was escorted from the table back into the Parc Beaumont, where he might finally get some rest.

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