But the 32-year-old Brit is taking charge at cycling’s greatest race and showed leadership on Saturday with a bold if unsuccessful effort to help a teammate win Stage 13 – instead won by Germany’s Andre Greipel.
Wiggins finished the windy and flat 217-kilometer (134.8-mile) ride from Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux to Le Cap d’Agde on the Mediterranean with his top rivals to retain the yellow jersey for a seventh consecutive day.
Greipel, who turns 30 on Monday, earned his third stage victory this Tour – a photo finish showed he won by half a wheel’s length ahead of Slovakian rider Peter Sagan. Edvald Boasson Hagen, of Norway, was third.
Just seconds earlier, Wiggins, with Sky teammate Boasson Hagen on his back wheel, led a speeding bunch of riders around a sharp final bend to overtake two breakaway riders, hoping to set up the Norwegian for a win.
Instead, a crafty Greipel – seeing the Wiggins setup in the works – held close to Boasson Hagen, and then outsprinted him in the final few yards to the line.
In Tour lore, such bold displays are unusual from the bearer of the yellow jersey. Wiggins had his reasons: It’s safer to stay in front of possible trouble in the frenzied pack, and he owed one to Boasson Hagen.
“I tried to repay Edvald in some way, because he’s been solid this Tour for me – and all season,” said Wiggins, noting that the Norwegian had been there to escort him in the Alps earlier this week.
Cycling experts have pointed to riders over the years who have dominated the pack, or peloton, with attributes of teamwork, willpower and race mastery, among others – earning them the “boss” moniker.
The most recent examples are Lance Armstrong, the retired seven-time champion, and two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador of Spain — who is still competing but is missing the Tour over a doping ban linked to the 2010 race.
Many believe that Wiggins is well-positioned to become the first Briton to take home the yellow jersey after the Tour ends on July 22. But he says it’s not his style to be the dominant force in the pack.
“I don’t think it’s important for the peloton to have a boss, ‘cause I think we should all have our own voice, and I’ve never thought that anybody should be above anybody else,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re all equals. I think in the past, when there have been bosses and that, it’s more through fear than respect — it’s certainly something that I have sensed, anyway.”
For Wiggins, it may be just a question of personality.
“In terms of being a boss, it’s not something I’m going to stand in front” to do, he said. “I’m a bit too much of a recluse for that.”
Wiggins also spoke Saturday about the “respect” fellow riders have for the yellow jersey bearer. After Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali took badly to a seeming glare from Wiggins at the finish of Stage 10. The next day, the Briton patched things up, with a pat on Nibali’s back after a punishing day in the Alps.
Wiggins earned more respect Saturday.
“I was impressed by the way Bradley worked for Boasson Hagen in the stage finale, especially with the sharp curve towards the end,” said Nibali, seen as a top contender for the yellow jersey.
But Wiggins ran afoul of Spain’s Luis Leon Sanchez — one of the two breakaway riders Wiggins helped the pack overtake — and made an angry gesture at the Briton as he passed by. Sanchez explained that he felt Sky was being too dominant, and he didn’t understand why Wiggins was working to help a teammate to win a stage while in yellow.
“It’s unfortunate. I can’t look after everyone in the peloton,” said Wiggins, adding that he does “love” Sanchez as a person. “It’s a shame he feels like that.”
Afterward, Sanchez had second thoughts about his initial reaction, writing on Twitter, “I beg (at)bradwiggins’ pardon. He is the leader of the race so he and his team have the right to do whatever they want.”
After the 13th stage, the top standings didn’t change: Wiggins leads second-place Sky teammate — and fellow Briton — Christopher Froome by 2 minutes, 5 seconds. Nibali is third, 2:23 back, and defending champion Cadel Evans of Australia is 3:19 back in fourth.
Some race watchers say Wiggins should keep on good terms with his own teammate, Froome, who won on an uphill finish in Stage 7, and finished second to Wiggins in a time-trial into Besancon two days later.
“The most important thing for Sky is that those two guys remain friends until the end,” said Saxo Bank team manager Bjarne Riis. “But I can’t answer whether it will be the case or not.”
Said Stefano Zanatta, sports director of Nibali’s Liquigas team: “If Wiggins and Froome don’t get along well together, we’ll try to make the most of it.”
Wiggins, too, senses speculation about a possible conflict of interest, even if Froome has publicly expressed support for his Sky leader. Asked whether he considered Froome an opponent, Wiggins replied with a chuckle: “Well, he is a teammate.”
Saturday’s route was known as a transitional stage because it was mostly flat, and guided riders away from their last big test — the Alps — and toward their next, the Pyrenees.
As the riders neared the coast, the stage’s big challenges arrived: A steep if short climb in the port town of Sete, and a windy ride between the Mediterranean and the Bassin de Thau, known for its oyster farms.
Riders swung their bikes left to right as if in slow motion as they hit the Mont Saint-Clair climb in Sete, a mid-grade ascent over 1.6 kilometers — but with an average gradient of 10.2 percent.
That split the pack into several groups with Greipel, Wiggins, Nibali among the first 43 riders to finish. Some sprinters, like Mark Cavendish of Britain and Matt Goss of Australia, were dropped on the Mont Saint-Clair and came across more than 8½ minutes later.
Sunday’s 14th stage takes riders along two big climbs in a 191-kilometer trek from Limoux to Foix.