FIVE years ago, the notion of a British winner of the Tour de France seemed laughable.
Through the 109-year history of a race that is the ultimate test of physical and mental strength, British riders have rarely threatened to head back over the Channel with the maillot jaune in their possession.
There has been the odd stage win here and there and the occasional day spent in the famous yellow jersey.
Doncaster’s Tommy Simpson died on the slopes of Mont Ventoux 45 years ago chasing the impossible dream.
Yet such is the paucity of success stories for riders from these shores in a sport that has so often been dominated by Central Europeans, the achievements of Simpson and multiple stage winner Barry Hoban of Wakefield are still remembered today.
Things began to change, though, in British cycling in 2008 when Mark Cavendish collected his first stage wins and a year later Bradley Wiggins surprised even himself by finishing fourth in the general classification.
Three years on and the 2012 edition of Le Tour begins in Liege, Belgium, today with Britain’s Wiggins billed as the favourite.
It is testament to how quickly British cycling – thanks largely to a £50m cash injection by Team Sky – has caught up. Yet it does also highlight the lack of depth in the field with the absence of the banned Alberto Contador leaving an ageing Cadel Evans to defend his title amid a supporting cast made up of outside chances rather than sure things.
But after more than a century of Britons rarely falling into the former category, let us not dwell too much on the shortcomings of the best of the rest. For Wiggins is one of British cycling’s greatest competitors, translating his Olympic-medal laden career on the boards onto the roads of mainland Europe.
To take top billing in a team that includes the insatiable Cavendish is no mean feat.
Over the next three weeks Cavendish, the reigning sprint champion, will sacrifice his own personal glory to try to help Wiggins win the general classification.
From green jersey in 2011 to the famous yellow in 2012. It would be quite a step for British cycling.
One man who has the utmost confidence in Wiggins to deliver the victory over 20 gruelling stages is his Team Sky team-mate and Rotherham cyclist Ben Swift.
The 24-year-old, who contested his first Tour de France last summer as a domestique for Wiggins until a shoulder injury cut the Londoner’s bid short, said: “Barring injury or illness for Brad, or injury or illness for any of the team, he’s going to be hard to beat.
“The team we have got this year is very strong. It’s amazing how far we’ve come that we now have a general classification favourite and a team that everybody is going to be looking towards.
“Even the riders from the other teams will be wary of what Sky and Brad are going to be doing.
“You saw how quickly he came back from last year’s setback and how strong he has become since it. Just a few weeks later he was finishing third in the Vuelta and ever since then he’s got better and better.
“He’s won Paris-Nice, Romandie and the Dauphine. Brad’s the man to beat for sure and he has a great team behind him.”
Swift took himself out of the running to be a part of the team at the start of the year when he opted to focus on the track as his best way of winning an Olympic medal.
Having now switched his attention back to the Olympic road race on July 28 after failing to make the team pursuit squad, Swift has no regrets about taking himself out of the Tour reckoning.
A return to the great race next year is his medium-term goal. Until then, he has to make do like all of those who have not the means to tow a caravan halfway up the Col du Tourmalet, and watch it on the television.
“It works out quite well for me because I’ll be training hard in the morning and then I’ll be able to watch it as I recover in the afternoon,” said Swift, from his training camp in Majorca.
“Even watching it on the television, as a pro rider, you can pick up tips.
“You can learn a lot by watching the guys, especially the sprinters.”
Twelve months ago Swift was right in the thick of it.
A first Tour was never going to be about winning jerseys but beating the race itself, which he did by crossing the finish line on the Champs Elysees.
He even broke out from the peloton to cycle ahead and get his face on camera.
It was one of the many great memories he gained from a race that gets under the skin of riders and supporters alike.
“I have some great memories, especially from the Champs Elysees. The Tour de France is something special,” said Swift.
“It’s one of the biggest races in the world and it was special to be a part of that.
“It would have been nice to have been on the start line (today) like last year but I made my mind up at the start of the year and it was the right decision to make – even though I’ll be sat here watching the prologue, yearning to be there.
“It’s the history and the prestige of the race that makes it so special – everyone knows the Tour de France.
“The amount of people that come out to watch it is amazing. You get a lot of people lining the streets for the Vuelta Espana or the Giro d’Italia, but it’s nothing like the Tour.
“The whole atmosphere is electric, and the respect the riders have towards it is inspirational.
“I often think back to last year’s race and it amazes me how quickly it has come around again.
“It would be massive for cycling in Britain if Brad were to win the Tour de France.
“And with England now out of Euro 2012 and Wimbledon over in a week, hopefully people will tune into the Tour and really get behind Brad.”
Of those aforementioned outside chances who could thwart Wiggins, a wary eye should be kept on Garmin’s Ryder Hesjedal and Lotto’s Jurgen Van Den Broeck.
But maybe 2012 will be the year when a Briton finally gets to wear and keep that highly-prized yellow jersey.