BESANCON, France (Reuters) - Bradley Wiggins is too worldly-wise to think he has the Tour de France title in the bag, especially after being chewed up and spat out by the cycling gods in last year’s race.
The favourite has lived up to his pre-Tour billing and leads by one minute 53 seconds on Tuesday’s first rest day but the flurry of crashes seen in the first week show that even a commanding advantage can be lost in a tangle of mangled metal.
A smash on the seventh stage last July ended the Briton’s race and the same could easily happen in the next two weeks given the nervousness in the peloton.
“It is never over,” the double Olympic track individual pursuit champion told reporters.
Olympic road champion Samuel Sanchez was ruled out on Sunday with a broken hand after a high speed pileup which came out of nothing on the tight country roads that symbolise this great race.
Giro d‘Italia champion Ryder Hesjedal was also forced out after another moment of multi-bike mayhem.
If Wiggins avoids chaos and his Sky team mates protect him like they have in recent days but failed to do so in the early stages, then Britain’s first yellow jersey victory is highly likely unless defending champion Cadel Evans can excel.
The second-placed Australian suffered on Monday’s time trial when Wiggins blew away the rest of the field.
Big mountain stages follow on Wednesday and Thursday and Evans must attempt to win both in order to slim down his rival’s lead. More peaks follow next week when Wiggins’ stamina will be put to the ultimate test.
Third-placed Chris Froome will make sure he is no threat to his team mate but Vincenzo Nibali, the 2010 Vuelta champion, can not be discounted at 2:23 behind Wiggins. The gap to the others looks too big even with lots of racing left.
“I am just really proud of how I’ve handled all this. It could have been a disaster,” Wiggins said, acknowledging that he struggled slightly when taking the overall lead on Saturday.
“I did not sleep very well that night as I allowed the emotion of getting the yellow jersey to get to me.”
If Wiggins does roll into Paris on July 22 as the champion, he will know that the luck of avoiding a pileup was as key to his triumph as his immense skill in the time trials and on the ascents.
He is also fortunate two-time winner Alberto Contador is banned. Most pundits agree the Spaniard would have won this Tour if his shock doping conviction had not prevented him competing.
The next 11 stages will not be a dull procession. This is cycling and anything can happen. (Editing by Alison Wildey)