HE HAS raced up some of the toughest climbs in the world, but Sir Bradley Wiggins is under no illusions about what faces him and a star-studded field over the next three days.
Wiggins has returned for the second Tour de Yorkshire, which begins today, after finishing 59th in last year’s first staging of the event.
The four-time Olympic champion said it was an “easy decision” to come back, but summed up the race in one word: hard.
“I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it,” he admitted of last year’s inaugural edition. “It’s a hard race.
“You forget how hard Yorkshire is, terrain-wise, or I do anyway living in Lancashire.
“But I enjoyed the experience.
“It was certainly bigger than I think anyone anticipated.
“The crowds in York last year were incredible and it actually felt a bit like a Tour de France stage.
“It has become one of the biggest races on the calendar for teams like us, along with the Tour of Britain.”
Today’s first stage takes the riders from Beverley to Settle.
They will race between Otley and Doncaster tomorrow, before Sunday’s final showdown in the north of the county.
Wiggins regards the third stage, from Middlesbrough to Scarborough, as on a par with last year’s opener, which shocked hardened riders on some of the top continental teams with its severity.
“That’s Yorkshire,” said the 2012 Tour de France champion, the first Briton to claim overall victory in the world’s biggest annual sporting event.
“There’s not many flat roads in Yorkshire or places you could take it to make it easier than that.”
Welcome to Yorkshire, who host the race alongside Tour de France organisers Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), have big plans for the future, including adding at least one more day.
Wiggins believes that could actually make the Tour de Yorkshire less daunting.
“In some ways the longer it is, the better it is,” he said.
“It would start opening it up to other parts of the county, then rather than trying to reach some of the toughest parts of Yorkshire in three days, it spreads it out a bit and maybe makes one or two days easier.
“I think that would be a good thing.”
Wiggins is one of six Tour de France stage winners in this year’s Yorkshire field.
Other big names include Matt Hayman, winner of this month’s Paris-Roubaix classic, and Wiggins reckons the high-quality line-up reflects the race’s growing status.
He said: “It has got major backers, ASO, who come over and organise it.
“Whenever they do anything they do it properly, so I think it has got a longevity to it. They have shown they can make a success of it.
“The women’s race is running side by side with it and if anything that’s even bigger than the men’s race, so it has got a lot going for it.”
The women, including West Yorkshire’s world champion Lizzie Armitstead, will race over the same course as the men tomorrow.
“There’s more money for the women’s race than the men’s, which is a first,” Wiggins observed. “That is definitely the right thing to do. Potentially it could be that it just becomes a women’s race in the future.
“I don’t know what they are thinking with it, but it certainly could become a three-day race like the men’s.
“I don’t see why it couldn’t be run like that.”
Yorkshire’s race is a legacy of the Tour de France’s hugely successful visit to the county two years ago.
Sir Gary Verity, of Welcome to Yorkshire, has indicated future developments could including the county bidding to host cycling’s 2019 world championships, staged over a week in early autumn.
Wiggins, who won the 2014 time trial world championship, believes that could happen.
“That would be some world championship if they did,” he said. “Just in terms of the people watching it, it would be an incredible thing if they did do that.
“I don’t know where they would take it, because they could make it one of the hardest worlds there’s ever been if they decided to go up some of the hills here.
“It would be interesting to see where they would run it out of, whether it would be York, or Harrogate or Leeds, or somewhere else.
“I think Yorkshire could do it without a doubt; if you can run the Tour de France here you can do anything.”
Wiggins is now riding for his own team, who have a Yorkshire sponsor in Normanton-based Yesss Electrical and the squad are aiming for a top-10 finish, which would be an outstanding result against such tough competition.
Yesss provided a cake to mark Wiggins’s 36th birthday yesterday, which he spent in York preparing for and promoting today’s opening stage.
The Rio Olympics are Wiggins’s next target, but this may not be his final competitive appearance in Yorkshire.
He said: “I’ve considered racing again next year on the British scene, doing races like this and the Tour of Britain.
“I enjoy it and I’d love to come back next year.”