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Tour fever strikes the UK, but where are its riders?

SKIPTON, England (VN) — Suppose the sheep never had any choice.

It’s not like they’d ask to be painted in the Tour’s colors. But they were, caked in their Tour de France best.

A pub here lost its normal white coat in favor of polka dots. Even the British taverns — some of the last, best bastions of timeless design indifference — are dressing up for the Grand Depart of the 2014 Tour de France. On Saturday morning fans sardined into Leeds, shoulder-to-shoulder, four deep at the barriers for a kilometer.

Britain’s The Times canonized the Tour in an editorial, as an olive branch between France and Britain, and a welcome relief from recent World Cup and cricket disgraces in for England. “… It is gratifying to find a sport at which we excel,” The Times wrote.

This region and this nation’s outpouring of support for La Grande Boucle is not surprising, as its de facto national team, Sky, has tasted winner’s champagne in Paris the last two editions. But what comes as more of a surprise is the lack of riders from Great Britain who took the start Saturday; just four riders from the host nation are riding the 2014 Tour. Sky alone brought four last year.

Defending champion Chris Froome (Sky), Geraint Thomas (Sky), Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Simon Yates (Orica-GreenEdge) make up the riders from Great Britain at the 2014 Tour. Froome is Kenya-born but a British citizen, and, at least among the people VeloNews spoke with, not embraced as wholly as Bradley Wiggins, even with the No. 1 on his back.

When Wiggins won the Tour de France and Olympic gold in the same season, his popularity skyrocketed. Cycling’s popularity in the country traced a similar trajectory, buoyed by celebrity and an influx in funding. Wiggins’ Sky team was on top of the world, too: they had set out to win the world’s biggest race with a British rider and done it. Excitement was peaking, and in Yorkshire this weekend, peaked.

“It’s been an incredible journey for British cycling over the past 10, 15 years, and with this Tour starting here, with Sky starting as the two-time defending champion, it’s kind of a pinnacle for the sport,” said Sky principal Dave Brailsford.

“When we started Sky, we wanted to win the Tour with a British rider, within five years, and do it clean. And we’ve done that, two times in a row. It says a lot about how far British cycling has come.”

And yet there is a wanting among some here, for more Brits, yes, and for one in particular: the 2012 Tour winner and a sort of people’s champion in the UK.

“Wiggins put cycling on the map for Britain. I see it on a Sunday ride. You see so many cyclists out on the road. … It’s boosted cycling. A lot of middle-age guys, rather than playing golf, are now picking up the bike,” said Tim Doyle, 44, from Nottingham.

“Obviously I’m no team manager. But it’s a shame that Brailsford didn’t put in the two favorites, Froome and Wiggo … wouldn’t it be better than try to get a No. 1 and No. 2 podium spot, rather than putting all your money on Froome?”

“No” was Sky’s answer on the Wiggins conundrum, and the home team also left off Pete Kennaugh, who rode last year’s Tour. Two other notable UK absences at the start were David Millar (Garmin-Sharp) and Alex Dowsett (Movistar).

“It is disappointing how many British riders we’ve got in the peloton,” said Brit Chris Boardman, one of six United Kingdom riders to wear the yellow jersey, to the BBC.

Both Garmin and Movistar management said Millar and Dowsett were left off due to illness, and Millar voiced his displeasure via an emotive social media stream. All told, it amounts to a thin crew for the home nation.

“I’m disappointed, given the depth that British Cycling is supposed to have at the moment, in terms of distance riders,” said Robert Drury, 30, from London, who was spending the weekend in the Yorkshire Dales at the Rapha Tempest, a cycling-themed festival.

“But then, when you look at the latest world championships on the track, the men’s team failed miserably. So maybe the depth isn’t there as much as we thought. I’m glad Simon Yates is riding. Disappointed Adam’s not, considering the season he’s had so far.”

There is also the connection fans seem to have with Wiggins as opposed to Froome.

“Froome’s a quiet, obviously a fantastic cyclist, kind of a quiet, reserved sort of character. Cycling has a cool image about it, and I think that’s what Wiggins brought to cycling,” Doyle said. “Froome doesn’t have, maybe, that show business, I suppose. … It’s a shame that Wiggins is not riding.”

For others, though, Wiggins should have ridden the Tour last year.

“You’ve got the yellow jersey, unless you’ve lost a leg, you defend it,” Drury said. “It should be obligatory to defend the yellow jersey if you’ve worn it, unless something else has happened. You know, like a heavyweight boxer; you give the belt back if you’re not going to defend it.”

Wiggins’ defense never happened. Froome’s started Saturday morning.

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