|The sky is the limit for British rider Bradley Wiggins after his recent win in France [GALLO/GETTY]
Bradley Wiggins has made himself a credible Tour de France contender with his Paris-Nice victory, showing guts and composure to claim one of the biggest wins of his career on the road.
A Tour route tailor-made for 'rouleurs', Alberto Contador's absence, a strong team and a few lessons learnt mean that
Wiggins will have the biggest chance of his career to win the greatest cycling race in the world.
The Team Sky rider won the Paris-Nice race after claiming the final time trial, a 9.6-km dash to the Col d'Eze on Sunday that suggested Wiggins still had plenty left in the tank after a week of climbing and racing in the wind and cold.
He became the first Briton to win the week-long 'Race to the Sun' since Tom Simpson in 1967. The late Simpson never won the Tour, but Wiggins surely has what it takes to make 2012 a vintage year for British cycling.
This year's Tour will feature 101.5 kms of time trials, compared with 65.5 last year and 60.9 in 2009, a great asset for
Wiggins while it should dramatically reduce the chances of Andy Schleck, a pure climber who has always struggled against the clock.
"It's obvious that this Tour will favour Wiggins much more than the last two editions," Radioshack-Nissan team manager Johan Bruyneel, who guided Lance Armstrong to his seven Tour titles and Contador to his 2007 and 2009 triumphs on the French roads, said during Paris-Nice.
Wiggins, however, believes freshness will be the key factor, especially in the final individual time trial, a 53.5-km ride
between Bonneval and Chartres on the eve of the Champs Elysees parade.
"It's more about freshness. If you're not fresh, your time trial abilities count for nothing," the 31-year-old Wiggins said before the start of Paris-Nice.
In 2009, Wiggins finished a decent sixth in the final time trial in Annecy, and Sunday's performance in the uphill ride to the Col d'Eze suggested the three-times track cycling Olympic champion has enough energy to get through three weeks of racing - if he does not peak too early, that is.
"You cannot win the Tour de France if you also want to win the Dauphine (a few weeks earlier)," Bruyneel said, referring to Wiggins's victory in last year's Criterium du Dauphine.
Another factor in the June 30-July 22 race will be Contador's absence after the Spaniard was banned for failing a
dope test during the 2010 race.
Contador would have been the favourite and his absence will undoubtedly leave a spot available on the podium in Paris.
Defending champion Cadel Evans of Australia will probably start as the favourite now, but Wiggins will focus on himself.
"You can't worry too much about if he's there...you just concentrate on what you're doing as a team and individually," he said.
And in Italy...
Joaquin Rodriguez of Spain broke away in the final kilometer to win the penultimate stage of the weeklong Tirreno-Adriatico race on Monday, while 40-year-old American Chris Horner maintained his overall lead.
Rodriguez, who rides for the Katusha team, timed 4 hours, 38 minutes, 27 seconds over the undulating 181-kilometer (112.5-mile) leg starting and ending in Offida.
The 2010 Spanish Vuelta champion, Vincenzo Nibali of Italy, was second and 2007 Giro d'Italia winner Danilo Di Luca was third, both with the same time as Rodriguez.
Horner finished fourth and still holds a 5-second lead over Roman Kreuziger of the Czech Republic in the overall standings. Nibali gained a six-second bonus with his podium finish in the stage to now trail Horner by six seconds.
The race ends on Tuesday with a 9.3-kilometer (5.78-mile) individual time trial in San Benedetto del Tronto, on the Adriatic coast.