If a week is a long time in politics, 12 months can prove an eternity in sport. A year ago Sir Bradley Wiggins travelled to the world road race championships to bookend a season in which almost everything he touched had turned to gold. Victories in the Tour de France and three other major stage races, plus an unforgettable Olympic gold medal in the time trial had turned the Kid from Kilburn into a national celebrity, BBC Sports Personality and an instantly recognizable figure.
For Wiggins, the contrast between September 2012 and 2013 could hardly be more marked, and not solely because he has shaved off what were, briefly, the most famous sideburns in British sport since the days of Gareth Edwards and George Best. Despite winning the Tour of Britain on Sunday, tomorrow’s world time trial championship marks his final chance to salvage a major title from his leanest season since 2007. A gold medal would be a massive turnaround.
It would have been unimaginable a year ago, but Wiggins did not even defend his title in the Tour de France this July, in part due to a knee injury which had disrupted his preparation, but mainly because of his difficult relationship with the 2012 runner-up, his team mate Chris Froome. That led to a struggle for leadership of Team Sky. The question of which of the pair should have No1 status in the British squad in the Tour had been live since the 2012 race ended, and rumbled on through the spring.
Before his main goal of the season, the Giro d’Italia, which is comparable with the Tour in duration and difficulty, Wiggins increased the pressure on himself by stating he felt capable of winning both that event and the Tour – but that backfired when the Italian race went wrong. The sight of the Tour de France winner struggling to hang on on rainsoaked descents in Tuscany, and being shot out of the peloton on the Veneto plains amid coughing fits was as unexpected as it was humiliating. Amidst all this, Froome was winning race after race.
The Tour leadership question turned out to be a no-brainer. Froome it had to be, a decision vindicated when he went on to win by a street. And after Wiggins was ruled out of the Tour, that in turn prompted him to rethink and – perhaps a little hastily – declare an end to his days of going for victories in the Tour de France, the Giro, and the Vuelta a Espana. The demands were too extreme, the pressure on him and his family too much to bear. It was an incredible about-turn: in 11 months he had gone from winning the Tour to writing off his chances of ever doing so again.
Trying to win the Tour is not for those who wish to enjoy normal human stuff like the odd glass of wine or a day out with the family. The focus on diet and rest is relentless, 365-days a year. And Wiggins has a long history of struggling mentally after attaining a major goal. He has always shone when making the big push; sustaining the effort year-in, year-out has always seemed a struggle for him. Put those together, and you understand why 2013 has turned out to be an annus horribilis.
Which brings us back to the world championship. Gold returns Wiggins to the top, while a medal of any colour means he regains some of the stature he enjoyed last season. That in turn could influence whether he tries to win the Tour again, switches to other goals, or even – as some have been led to speculate – opts to retire. That is what is at stake on Wednesday 25 September over 57km between Montecatini Terme and Florence. It is all or nothing.