In-form Wiggins can prove himself a true champion by burying himself for Froome at the Tour, that’s the verdict of Brendan Gallagher in this special Mixed Terrain column for TheTour.co.uk

BRAD WIGGINS’ victory at the Amgen Tour of California seems to have divided opinion with some insisting it heralds a return to top GC form, which in turn opens up Team Sky’s possible options at this year’s Tour de France, while others are equally adamant that victory in an eight day stage race against a less than stellar field with a heaven sent  Individual Time Trial on Stage Two is being blown out of proportion.

It’s admittedly quite a difficult one to call although if he had ‘failed’ or performed modestly at the Tour of California you can bet your bottom dollar that the detractors – and Wiggins does seem to polarise opinion like few others – would have immediately used it as evidence of his terminal decline as a GC rider. In my opinion you can’t have it both ways.

As a fairly experienced Wiggins observer – I’ve been watching and reporting on him since the 1998 Commonwealth Games at Kuala Lumpar – I’d say the Kilburn Kid is building form impressively and somewhere along the line there will be fireworks this season. One of his stated aims is a Time-Trial hat-trick – GB Nationals, Commonwealth Games and World Championships – and if he can overcome the considerable obstacle of Tony Martin at the Worlds in Spain that is well within his compass.

The old sporting adage states you can only beat the opposition in front of you and he did that impressively enough in California in the kind of boiling conditions he has sometimes struggled with while on paper Sky had not sent one of their strongest line-ups to assist although it should be added that the likes of Ian Boswell, Joe Dombrowski and Josh Edmondson performed very well.

Forget the timings and winning margins for a minute; just go on the evidence of your eyes. When in form Wiggins looks majestic on a bike – a galleon under full sail – and for the first time since 2012 that’s how he appeared in California. Straight back, high backside, relaxed but unmoving shoulders, serene countenance. No frowning, looking around fretfully or nervous twitches trying to adjust his position on the bike.

Above – Sir Bradley Wiggins in time trial action

Wiggins’ outstanding Time Trial on Stage Two was proof positive of his underlying form and we know now that when Wiggins is Time-Trialling well, he produces his best climbing form. He will never be a blistering steep summit finish climber but over a three week Grand Tour with its fair share of long grinding medium gradient climbs and when you need to recover day after day he is still top notch when in form. When he won the Tour de France in 2012 yes Chris Froome was the best out and out climber, but Wiggins was still comfortably the second best climber of those racing that year which is what some tend to forget

Consider for a minute also where Wiggins has come from recently. It’s still only a month ago – when by design he was 5kgs heavier – that Wiggins fulfilled a long held dream and posted a top ten in Paris-Roubaix, a rare and considerable achievement for a modern day GC rider. He’s back into the mind-set when he operates best – setting a target and working steadily towards it. 2013 Tour of Britain win (below), World Time Trial championships silver medal, Paris-Roubaix top ten, Tour of California win. If A N Other had reeled off that recent set of results I suggest we would be quietly impressed. Attach the name Wiggins to that palmares and suddenly the critics start picking holes again.

So let’s take a cold eyed look at this year’s Tour de France. Looking at Wiggins’s growing form I’d say that if he rode with the full support of Team sky’s strongest line-up he would be well capable of a top five finish – and if you are that close anything could happen – but that’s not the point. Chris Froome is the reigning champion, in his pomp and the stronger GC rider, especially on a ‘Climbers Tour’ as the 2014 route appears to be.  Wiggins, after struggling with the reality of Froome’s ascendancy last year, has accepted the situation and again reiterated after California that the 2014 TDF is all about Froome and his contribution, if selected, has to be in a support role. He has repeated that message so often that we surely have to now take it at face value.

It’s an interesting dynamic though because Froome and Wiggins are very different riders which dictates their ability to contribute in a team role In 2012 Froome spent much of the race at the back of the Sky mountain train – often behind Wiggins himself riding ‘tail gun charlie’ – and his specific job was to help Wiggins up the steep summit climbs after Michael Rogers and Richie Porte had grafted heroically at the front and spent themselves.

By virtue of that alone Froome was always going to finish high himself in the GC.  With Wiggins, if he truly rides in a support role, it will be different.

For a start as one of the great rouleurs a big part of his role would be away from the mountains, trying to boss the race for Sky on the flatlands and the always madcap first week which this year includes that cobbled stage.

On the climbs, as he showed on Mount Diablo at the Tour of California, there are few better at driving a diminishing peloton to destruction for six or seven kilometres – or longer – up the medium gradient slopes before the stage’s crux section. If he fulfils that role for Froome, if Wiggins empties the tanks on the mid-section of the day’s big climb he is very unlikely to be finishing in the lead group on mountain top days.

Wiggins might theoretically be capable of a top five finish this year if riding as a protected rider – that is my considered estimation – but if he buries himself in the most effective fashion for Chris Froome he will end up among the also-rans which is the pill he must prepare himself to swallow. There won’t be the consolation of a podium place in Paris and with five mountain stage in the seven stages before the big Individual Time Trial between Bergerac – Périgueux, Wiggins will also have to seriously compromise his ability to compete for a stage win there.

The fascinating question of course is can such a recent Tour de France winner and multiple Olympic champion accept that seemingly humble role?  I think he can and he will. As he approaches the late Autumn of his career Wiggins, deep down, knows that he was less than gracious over Froome’s superb contribution in 2012 and that needs to be rectified while he still capable of lending a hand. It’s taken a while but helping Froome has now become a target and once Wiggins sets himself a target – once he gets the mind-set right – very good things can often happen.

The first test of that resolve to do the right thing will possibly come as early as Stage Five on July 9, the Ypres – the Arenberg Porte du Hainaut stage which includes those cobbles.  On current form, and given his power on the cobbles, there would be every chance of Wiggins putting a couple of minutes into other GC riders that day and even winning the stage and claiming the yellow jersey again. How tempting that would be for a former race winner?

But if Wiggins is truly riding for Froome he must be vigilant and ride for his team leader and nurse him through what could be a very testing day. Just as Froome reigned himself in on those two high mountain stages of the 2012 Tour de France.  It will be a big moment but it could be the moment that even the detractors accept that Wiggins is a champion bike rider.