Blazin' Saddles

Belief in British bulldogs builds

Blazin' Saddles

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Somewhere in Luxembourg, with his feet up and a cushion to support the fractured bone in his pelvis, Andy Schleck was probably breathing a huge sigh of relief on Monday afternoon.

The sight of seeing his brother Frank lose four and a half minutes to Bradley Wiggins in the shorter and hillier of two individual time trials in the Tour would have been enough to make Andy realise that his own injury was perhaps a blessing in disguise.

Seeing defending champion Cadel Evans — the man who took the yellow jersey from under the nose of Schleck last July — finish himself almost two minutes down on Wiggins in the 41.5km ITT to Besancon would have confirmed to the invalid that if ever there was a year to miss the Grande Boucle, this was it.

Heck, Schleck Junior could well have lost six minutes to the man who is now hands-down favourite to ride into Paris wearing yellow.

Interestingly, the last two team-mates from the same country to finish first and second in a Tour stage were in fact Andy and Frank in last year's ride up the Col du Galibier.

Wiggins and his Team Sky understudy (!) Chris Froome repeated that feat — and in doing so became the first British one-two in the history of cycling. What's more, they did it in truly devastating fashion. Had this been a mountain climb, it would have been the equivalent of dropping Evans on one of Alpe d'Huez first hairpin bends.

"I am good at those time trials and I got it spot on today," Wiggins understated. "I felt great. It was flowing. I was concentrating, very business-like," he added, in a very business-like manner.

The 32-year-old from Kilburn even had time to elaborate on his foul-mouthed outburst during Sunday's post-stage press conference, in which he had called out the anonymous doubters on the Twittersphere for levelling lazy accusations of doping towards Wiggins and Team Sky.

"Everyone said I had lost it yesterday at the press conference, but I hadn't, I was merely speaking my mind," he said. "No apologies for it — maybe the language — but I love this race, I love this sport and it's moments like this that make all the hard work worthwhile."

Saddles is going to put his cards on the table and come out in support of the two men (not to mention team) who have just delivered one of the best performances by any British sportsmen in recent memory (a performance, he hastens to add, which is still in full flow and — should it reach fruition — will last another glorious 11 days).

But the truth is this: what we saw to Besancon and up La Planche des Belles Filles on Saturday is suspicious. Ridiculously so. As suspicious as a man hanging outside a bank wearing a stripy top and a balaclava.

It's suspicious, but not because Wiggins, Froome and their Sky colleagues fit the doping mould. Or because there's no other feasible explanation for their dominance (there patently is). Or because they're inherently unlikeable and shifty characters (they're not — Froome is perhaps the nicest chap on two wheels, while even Wiggins is a hugely charming man when taking time out from making Gordon Ramsey sound like Enid Blyton).

It's suspicious simply because cycling fans of the previous decade or two are not used to seeing such total and utter domination without the carpet being pulled from underneath their feat weeks, months, years later.

That's the only valid reason. People don't want to see their dreams shattered. They don't want to be cheated out of a moment. They don't want to be made to look a fool.

It's reached the point where, as both a fan and a commentator of the sport, you don't know if you're being ridiculously stupid and naive to believe in the bona fide brilliance of something before your eyes — or weather you should accept it, revel in it, doff your cap and say 'chapeau'.

It's hugely frustrating. Saddles wants to believe in wonderful, awe-inspiring performances. Saddles does believe in them. But it's difficult when so many people — and not just internet 'trolls', but people you respect and like and appreciate — are telling you things to the contrary.

Why people are cynical is totally understandable: people have supported and believed the likes of Landis, Vinokourov, Armstrong (whose own past is still shrouded in suspicion) and even Ricco — and ended up with egg all over their faces.

So, when it comes down to it, it's predominantly a question of whether or not you believe particular individuals at face value. Whether or not you are the kind of person who wants to go down the road of believing that everyone you meet or come across are inherently dishonest until proven otherwise — or whether or not you want to not only give people the benefit of the doubt, but more than that, entrust your faith in them.

Call Saddles mean and narrow-minded, but while he never felt he owed Ricco that trust, neither Wiggins nor Froome have ever done anything personally to Saddles to make him think they can be pulling the wool over the eyes of him and so many people. In Saddles's democratically and morally minded head, people are not guilty until proven innocent. If all Saddles has to go by are the muddled hunches shared by other people on Twitter, then surely forming an opinion on that basis is almost as bad as the crime itself.

Judging by the way they react, some 'fans' actually seem to like the fact that cycling is riddled in doping because it gives them something to whinge about. People love conspiracy theories and the murky world of doping is just that. It adds to the sport an element of cachet which so often elevates its fans onto a pedestal of misplaced self-righteousness. (It also opens the sport up to ridicule and satire - so essential if it's your job to make light of the professional peloton as well as provide a balanced commentary). Rumours are so easy to start, suspicions so easy to spread and mud sticks.

Accusations of doping can never be disproven, only proven. There is no test that clears you, only a test that condemns you. Those accused are damned if they do, damned if they don't.

But Saddles is going by what he has at his disposal — the mere facts and the performances.

People say Wiggins's transformation into potential Tour de France champion is impossible to fathom — but it's hardly been an overnight change; the guy has been working up to this for years now. And it's not as if he was a nobody beforehand: he was an Olympic track rider with a proven winning mentality and a huge drive to succeed. He has worked harder in the past decade than many of us will work in our entire lives. Why is his transformation from bulky domestique to whippet-thin all-rounder any different from, say, Thierry Henry's transformation from a winger with no end product, to a central striker breaking all scoring records?

People say that Froome has come from nowhere — but he was scouted by Sky and developed accordingly. Still only 27, he is probably himself only beginning to discover how much potential he has. That said, his time trial on Monday was hardly a curveball — he finished second in the ITT in the Vuelta last year (beating Wiggins in the process). In the same race, he was one of the best climbers — so hardly pulled it out of the bag on Saturday.

People say that Team Sky are too good to be true — but they have had targets and a structure from the outset. They have worked up to this since 2009, hand picking the right riders and revolutionising training methods. In doing so, they have shown themselves to be perhaps robotic - but in a much more human way than the US Postal team many have compared them to. On top of all this, they have the UK's national coach on board, a man widely revered in the sport — and Dave Brailsford is from the same anti-doping school into which Jonathan Vaughters has graduated since at the helm of Garmin. (Yes, it would help if he was as instantly accessible as Vaughters - but you can't judge a man for being private).

Judging by what we saw on Monday, Sky are keeping to their plan of delivering a British Tour winner within five years. But despite all the cacophony, they have not done it yet. As Wiggins said after cementing his lead in the GC in Besancon: "It ain't over until the fat lady sings, and she ain't even in the building yet." While Wiggins no doubt has a bit of Beth Ditto on his iPod, she won't be on the playlist until the peloton heads into Paris with the yellow jersey safely on his shoulders.

Before then, Sky will have to defend Wiggins's (or perhaps Froome's?) lead for a very long time. The race is far from over. Their rivals will not allow them to dictate play — simply because anyone else who has aspirations of the maillot jaune will have to be already wearing it going into the next time trial to Chartres on the penultimate day of the race (and preferably with a two-minute cushion).

It's a wonderfully exciting time to be a British cycling fan. Throw Mark Cavendish's win into the hat and Great Britain now has an unprecedented three different stage winners in one edition of the Tour. Saddles is not going to rein in his emotions simply because others are telling him it's not believable without offering anything remotely believable themselves in return.

Saddles believes in Wiggins and in Froome and in Team Sky. This is history in the making — and for the right reasons. And if you can't at least accept how or why Saddles has come to that, his own personal conclusion, then, to paraphrase the current yellow jersey, you're just a bunch of darned ruffians and bounders.

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