The UK enjoyed unprecedented glory at this year’s Tour de France, but just how well does Bradley Wiggins’ fourth place stand up to Britain’s performances throughout the race’s history?
1956 and 1959 Brian Robinson — 14th and 19th at 1-12-11
Over fifty years before Bradley Wiggins’ fourth-place, Brian Robinson was Britain’s Tour trailblazer. In 1956, he rode to fourteenth overall. However, his topsy-turvy race three years later grabbed more headlines. Ninth overall with ten days remaining, Robinson dramatically finished outside the time limit, exhausted, on stage fourteen, only to be reinstated. Out of contention for the overall after losing an hour, he changed tack and focused all his energies on a stage victory.
Riding with a mixed international team, he attacked alone on stage twenty and soloed to Great Britain’s second Tour stage — Robinson had also taken the nation’s first the year before — beating a lethargic peloton by twenty minutes. His 140-kilometre foray also took him from 42nd overall into the top twenty overall. Robinson’s quality is often forgotten — he won the 1961 edition of the Dauphiné Libéré and finished third in Milan-San Remo.
1962 Tom Simpson — sixth at 17-09 to Anquetil
The 1962 Tour de France was 24 year-old Tom Simpson’s breakthrough Grand Tour ride. After a solid first week, he rose to second overall behind Andre Darrigade, after infiltrating a thirty-man break which gained six minutes on stage eight. Four days later, he became the first Briton to wear the maillot jaune, riding over the Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde with the favourites.
However, Simpson slipped to fifth the next day, losing almost six minutes in a time-trial up Superbagnères, and lost another place late on in the race. Nevertheless, his consistency has only been matched by Bradley Wiggins: the Harworth-born man never dropped below twelfth overall over the course of the race. Though he won the world road-race championship and the Tours of Flanders and Lombardy in his career, Tour de France success became a driving force for Simpson. His winning ambitions ended both poignantly and abruptly with his untimely death on Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour.
1981 Graham Jones — 20th at 41-06 to Hinault
Jones first hit the top twenty overall after his Peugeot squad finished second in the fourth stage 77-kilometre TTT. However, his team would become burdensome later: in both the Pyrenees and the Alps, Jones had to put aside personal ambitions to drop back and assist Peugeot team leaders Jean-Rene Bernaudeau and, later, Phil Anderson.
Things came to a head on the race’s nineteenth stage from Morzine to Alpe d’Huez, as Jones was called back from the leading group to pace a shattered Anderson, sat second overall at the time. The Australian lost 17 minutes at the end of the day, with Jones leaving him late on to recover some time. Despite obeying team orders, he still managed to take twentieth place overall in Paris. Nowadays, Jones may be familiar to readers as a Tour de France commentator on BBC Radio 5 Live.
1984 Robert Millar — fourth at 14-42 to Fignon
After a solid first week kept him in the mix, Millar rocketed into seventh overall on stage eleven by winning at Guzet-Neige. As he rode consistently through the Pyrenees, Millar was resolute that his target remained the King of the Mountains jersey, despite the fact that the Scot was riding better than Peugeot team leader and friend Pascal Simon.
Back-to-back fifth and fourth place finishes on summit finishes at Alpe d’Huez and La Plagne took him into a commanding King of the Mountains lead and fourth place overall. However, it was a fine surprise seventh on the race’s penultimate-day 51-kilometre time-trial that cemented the reticent Scot’s finishing position.
At the next year’s Vuelta, he came the closest any Briton has ever done to winning a Grand Tour, losing the race lead at the eleventh hour, as a group of Spanish contenders worked together to ensure home victory for Pedro Delgado.
1996 Chris Boardman — 39th at 1-27-44 to Riis
There was a residual hope for several years that Chris Boardman’s excellent time-trialling and supreme physical attributes could lead to a high Tour finish, when coupled with consistent climbing. However, his lack of form when it mattered, perhaps coupled with the drug-addled era he competed in, made a high position nigh impossible.
In 1996, he blew up spectacularly on the Tour’s first big mountain stage, to Les Arcs, tumbling from tenth to 41st overall. Though Boardman was still hopeful of a top twenty finish, his slow movement up the classification was halted by another jour sans on the road to Pamplona, finishing in the autobus. A sixth place on the final time-trial lifted the Olympic gold medallist back into the top forty overall. It would prove to be the precociously talented Boardman’s highest-ever Tour finish.
2003 David Millar — 55th at 1-54-38 to Armstrong
Though showing glimpses of climbing ability, Millar, like Boardman, has proved unable to string strong mountain performances together over the course of a Grand Tour. The 2003 race started badly for him: Millar lost the prologue by 0.08 seconds, unshipping his chain 500 metres from the finish on the Paris pave, after crossing the intermediate time check fastest.
Though still scraping inside the top thirty with a week to go, a bout of bronchitis saw Millar spend two days in the Pyrenean gruppetto and consequently plummet down the overall classification. While the enthralling head-to-head between Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich stole headlines in a rainy time-trial from Pornic to Nantes, Millar made amends for his prologue disappointment, as the easily-forgotten stage winner that day.
2009 Bradley Wiggins — fourth at 6-01 to Contador
After ten months of hard labour on the road, Wiggins had spoken tentatively pre-Tour of a possible top-twenty overall finish. His strong prologue performance, taking third, was somewhat expected. However, his performance on the road to Arcalis was the first of several surprises, as Wiggins comfortably stayed at the head of affairs with the contenders. Emerging from the Pyrenees in fifth, it became clear that this was a different Bradley Wiggins to any seen before.
In the months prior to the Tour, he had shed seven kilograms from his already-skinny frame, while maintaining his power. The Londoner only lost significant time when the Schleck brothers and Contador attacked the race on the road to Le Grand-Bornand. More significantly, podium rival Armstrong escaped on the day’s last climb, the Colombière, to gain 49 seconds by the finish.
“Wiggo” moved to fourth overall after a strong time-trial round Annecy, but his gritty and tenacious performance on the Ventoux will be the one remembered in the future. After being dropped late on, the Garmin man fought all the way to the finish to limit his losses to Frank Schleck and save his position, thus equalling Millar’s 1984 result.
Cycling Weekly’s 2009 Tour de France section