Wednesday 29 March 2017

'Patron' Wiggins takes charge of Tour

Briton dubbed 'Le Gentleman' after stalling heavily punctured peloton to help sabotaged Evans recover

BRADLEY WIGGINS, Britain's Tour de France leader, was christened "Le Gentleman" last night by the French media after the race came under attack from saboteurs and Wiggins slowed the peloton in order to help a key rival.

The yellow jersey group, about 50 strong, had just crested the main climb of the day, the Mur de Pegure, when reigning champion Cadel Evans experienced the first of three rapid punctures as unidentified spectators scattered the road with tacks. It was an extraordinarily reckless action given that it took place just before a descent on which riders would reach almost 70mph.

Wiggins, riding alongside one of his leading rivals Vincenzo Nibali, immediately ordered the peloton to slow, initially because he felt that Evans deserved a chance to regain contact, but then also with the growing and scary realisation that other riders were also suffering punctures at an alarming rate.

Nibali immediately nodded his assent, a generous gesture as the Italian had been looking to attack down the descent, one of the few opportunities remaining in this tour for him to make good the 2minutes 23second deficit which separates him and the Team Sky leader.

Then Wiggins himself suffered a mechanical failure and had to change bikes and was quickly paced back to the bunch which slowed to a crawl before the organisers officially neutralised racing, allowing Evans and others to comfortably regain contact before the end. Those ahead in the break were allowed to race on with Luis Leon Sanchez claiming the win.

After the race, team directors reported that 30 of the key group had suffered punctures, or had arrived at the finish with tacks in their tyres. Four tour cars and three Tour motorbikes also either had punctures or found tacks embedded in their wheels.

"I thought it was the honourable thing to do, nobody should ever profit by somebody's misfortune like that," said Wiggins. "It became quite apparent very quickly when all of the guys started puncturing at once. It wasn't just one or two, it all started happening and was becoming dangerous."

French TV immediately acclaimed the leader as "Le Gentleman Wiggins" for his leadership and example of "Le fair play". Ironically the man himself had spent much of Saturday evening's press conference in Cap D'Agde insisting that he didn't really believe that the peloton needed an old style 'boss' in the manner of Bernard Hinault or Lance Armstrong, but yesterday he had no hesitation in taking charge. Whether he likes it not he is now officially Le Patron.

He added: "Jean-Francois Pescheux (the Tour competitions director) showed me one of the tacks after the race. It is something we can't control, there is nothing to stop people doing this kind of stuff whether it be aimed at one particular rider or just us generally."

"If it happened in a football stadium they would be seen on TV and arrested but we are so close to the public out there. We are there to be shot at... literally."

Race director Christian Prudhomme was furious: "These irresponsible actions could have had disastrous consequences for the riders and the vehicles. All of this happened just before the descent. It was a particularly stupid thing to do." Pescheux, meanwhile, described the fans as "imbeciles".

Wiggins, an impressively calm figure after the race, must nonetheless be wondering if this is becoming personal. On Friday's stage, 15 miles from the finish, his yellow jersey was burned when fans started running alongside him, and other riders, with the burning flares that are common place at football and rugby matches in France. He described them on that occasion as "nutters".

Amidst this chaos, young Frenchman Pierre Rolland, a worthy winner at La Toussuire last Thursday and in ninth postion in the General Classification, seized the opportunity to steal away on an attack. Haimar Zubeldia, in sixth position, was incensed and clearly wanted to chase but after discussion with Wiggins agreed to remain put.

Wiggins was not impressed with Rolland afterwards "I just thought it was a little uncouth at the time, the stage was gone. We had been up the final climb which was very tough, no one went away, the stage was over for GC riders."

Rolland came back to the peloton and got a frosty reception although he insisted afterwards that he had no idea of the extraordinary event unfolding behind him.

Ireland's Nicolas Roche finished in the peleton and remains in 13th position in the general classification while Dan Martin finished 76th in yesterday's stage and is in 65th position.

All concerned will be hoping for a more peaceful stage today when the sprinters should get a rare outing from Samatan to Pau, suggesting that Peter Sagan, a commanding green jersey leader, is the man to beat.

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