Paris – Roubaix – Bradley Wiggins: una carriera da favola, il lieto fine all’Inferno…

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For a cyclist attacked over the years as boring and predictable to gamble the end of his front-line road racing career on cycling’s most capricious one-day Classic, Paris-Roubaix, seems like a paradox but Sir Bradley Wiggins has never been all that his critics or his fans would like him to be. The 2012 Tour de France winner has an almost unique ability to adapt to any discipline, although a popular YouTube video suggests that his early outings in cyclo-cross for the Française des Jeux team were less than entirely successful.

Wiggins is neither an implacable time trialling machine who views the world through the prism of his power meter nor a “rock star” playing his “last show” as one French magazine put it. He is a shapeshifter: the key to his success over the years has been his ability to direct his attention wholeheartedly – to the point of mania at times – to a single goal, be it the Olympic pursuit and Madison medals that marked his early career, the major Tours in recent years, or last year’s target, the world time trial title. In that context, and with his personal need to forge the best all-round record he can, Sunday’s challenge makes sense.

It is a unique challenge in a unique event. Of the five great one-day races in the cycling calendar – Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Lombardy being the others – Paris-Roubaix stands alone thanks to the presence of 27 sections of cobbled roads varying from the smooth setts of the last zone within the northern French town to battered monsters in back lanes with resonant names: Warlaing, Bersée, Gruson, Chemin des Abattoirs.

Each cobbled section is short but they are tackled flat out, meaning that “you don’t feel you get tired, but after 200 or 220km, you are empty”, according to Sky’s Classics directeur sportif, Servais Knaven. “You are riding on emotion.” On the cobbles a cyclist’s race can be ruined in an instant by a puncture or a crash, with support cars trailing far behind the leaders. To that extent it is cycling’s equivalent of the Grand National.

No Tour de France winner has won in Roubaix since Bernard Hinault in 1981, and only three Britons have come close to victory in the race – Roger Hammond, Sean Yates and Barry Hoban. Wiggins would not, until his ninth place of last year, have seemed an obvious candidate to better them. But as he explained recently, he has brought his obsessive mind to bear on the problem and he repeated last Friday that he is in a better place than in 2014, with the proviso that a second’s inattention could end it all. But the same could be said of his Tour win in 2012, when he narrowly avoided massive pile-ups on various occasions. “I think Brad has a good chance,” said Knaven. “He’s really strong, he’s in good shape, he’s motivated. He has the capacity to win it but it’s all about the circumstances of the race whether he will win it or not.”

Whatever the outcome, Sunday is the end of an era at Team Sky, something that Wiggins admitted was beginning to get to him. The team’s bid to sign him in 2009 was redolent of a football transfer battle, and his departure to his own squad, Team Wiggins, with his eyes on a gold medal in Rio, has a feel of Eric Cantona leaving Manchester United. It is a trajectory that has included leading all three major Tours, winning the Tour and prestigious stage races such as Paris-Nice and the Dauphiné Libéré, and last year’s time trial title.

“It’s a nice point to end with,” Wiggins said. “It’s had its ups and downs but most of it has been incredible success.” Wiggins points to the adoption of the marginal gains concept by most professional teams as Sky’s main contribution: “Everyone is doing those things now. I was the first to do a [post-stage] warm-down on a turbo trainer, we turned up at the Giro in 2010 in skinsuits and everyone laughed, we brought in [aerodynamic] covered helmets. Tim Kerrison took us to Tenerife; that hotel [on Mount Teide] is booked year-round now.”

The highlight of those five and a bit years? “Being able to lead a British world champion – Mark Cavendish – across the Place de la Concorde on the final stage of the Tour de France, wearing the yellow jersey … Denmark [in 2011] when we won the World’s, to be part of that. It’s all part of Sky, it’s been a golden era for British cyclists.”

The golden era will end in dust. The weather on Sunday looks to be in Wiggins’s favour so cycling’s hell should be dry apart from a few large puddles, with choking clouds of dust and powdered cow dung assaulting the eyes and lungs rather than huge gobbets of thick mud. In the dry the race is more a test of power – the cobbles can be tackled at higher speeds than in the wet – rather than bike-handling.

That will suit Sky, who have landed two notable successes in second-tier events, the Het Nieuwsblad for Ian Stannard and Grand Prix E3 – an oddity in major sports events in being named after a motorway – for Geraint Thomas. Their big issue has been timing: at the two biggest one-day races this year, Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders, they struck out en masse too hard too early and were a man or two light at the key moments. “You have to feel the moment,” Wiggins said. “It’s likely to be a tailwind so it will be really fast. Tactically we have no one who can finish it off in a sprint so we need to go for a small group or go alone.”

With Stannard and the Welshman Luke Rowe alongside last year’s top-10 finishers Thomas – clearly Sky’s form rider of the last few weeks – and Wiggins, Sky have a quartet who can be at the front in the key phase after the most feared set of cobbles, the Arenberg Forest at 158 kilometres. Without the two men who have dominated this race in recent years, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara, this should be an open contest but Knaven accepts that Sky’s strength in numbers is a challenge. “In the past we’ve struggled to find a guy as strong as Cancellara or Boonen. Now we have three guys but we will have to use them wisely.”

Sky are far from being the favourites. That mantle lies on the melange of nationalities who make up the Russian-backed Katyusha team, who have clocked up a remarkable 11 wins in the last two weeks, including Flanders for their Norwegian Alexander Kristoff – the overwhelming favourite for Sunday – and Gent-Wevelgem for the grizzly veteran Italian Luca Paolini.

Both races were tactical masterpieces forged at the expense of Etixx, and – in Wevelgem – Sky and to outgun Katyusha Sky’s only hope is to be present in force at the head of affairs as the race approaches the key final cobbled sections around Gruson and Carrefour de l’Arbre. As Wiggins said several times on Friday, the road to Roubaix will be about the numbers but this time it is not just those on his cycle computer.