On Monday, an Englishman left his home in the northern neighbourhood of Eccleston, Lancashire and set off on his bike. The small matter of becoming the first Brit to win the Tour de France, after 99 tours (spanning 109 years) due to his negotiating 2,175 miles (3,497km), across often arduous terrains, didn’t seem to be an issue. Bradley Wiggins is already turning his attention to his home Olympics.
Before pedalling forward, we must cycle back: The 32-year-old Londoner has utterly dominated the competition over three weeks of one of the toughest endurance tests in sport. Wiggins had previously shown that he had the stomach to compete in the Tour thanks to a highly impressive fourth place finish in 2009, which equalled Robert Millar’s British best in 1984. A combination of bad luck (as well as some admittedly poor performances) in 2010 pushed him down the standings and then a broken collarbone curtailed his 2011 tour. Instead of bemoaning his misfortune, Wiggins was determined to come back better than ever. After taking the Yellow Jersey for the first time this year on stage 7 (he finished in third place that day), he never looked back and kept it on for 13 consecutive stages. Wiggins won the time trial from Arc-et-Senans to Besancon during stage 9, actually extended his lead during the final day in the gruelling mountains (stage 17) and was also victorious in the time-trial on the penultimate day. He ended up winning by 3 minutes and 21 seconds.
Not bad for a boy who used to cycle around a council estate in Kilburn, north-west London. As a 13-year old in 1993, Wiggins took the Eurostar with his mother and cheered the Tour riders home on the Champs-Elysees, France’s most famous thoroughfare, and saw his hero Miguel Indurain win his third tour in a row. On Sunday, he did it for the first time, with the good wishes of not just the British fans ringing in his ears but the locals as well (no wonder he called the final stretch “goose-pimple stuff.”). He’s been nicknamed Colonel Wiggo and Le Gentleman by a nation not just impressed with his ability to speak the local language but because he’s possessed with an all too rare streak of sportsmanship that saw him order the peloton to slow down after last year’s winner Evans was the victim of sabotage when tacks got onto the road.
Of course, it would be remiss to not mention the spirit of Team Sky, led by Dave Brailsford, Team Sky’s director, who assembled a squad instructed to protect not just Wiggins but his lead once he got ahold of the precious Yellow Jersey. The plan clearly worked to a tee — though some hankered for the runner-up, teammate Chris Froome, to have been allowed off the leash and given Wiggins a literal run for his money. But they stuck to the game plan (look for Froome to get his moment in the sun next year) and credit must also go to Wiggins for knowing when to play the bit part: on the final stage, rather than hide away amidst his protective posse, there was Wiggins in the line of riders pacing his colleague Mark Cavendish, helping him to his fourth stage win in a row in Paris. In total, seven stages were won by the Brits this Tour, which works out to be a staggering one in every three. While the talk is that Cav will break away from his pack next year – the Manx Missile’s third stage win of the Tour moved him to 23 overall, one ahead of seven-time champion Lance Armstrong and Frenchman Andre Darrigade, but 11 behind the record-holding Belgian Eddy Merckx — and seek glory elsewhere, there’s still a big job ahead of him, because the Olympics are about to come to town.
This Saturday, the likes of Wiggins, Froome, David Millar and Ian Stannard will be looking to Cavendish to potentially win Britain’s first Gold medal of the games if he triumphs in the road race. Wiggins has said that he will “ride his heart out” to help Cav. And then a week this Wednesday, Wiggins goes for Gold in the Olympic time trial, which could see him surpass Sir Steve Redgrave as most medalled British Olympian in history. Victory would be Wiggins’ fourth gold and sixth Olympic medal. Sacrificing the traditional Tour winner’s party in Paris was a tough decision for Wiggins but a key one, be believes, because the Olympic gold “is a higher priority than anything else.”
Many a British sports fan has noted that their heroes traditionally do well in disciplines which require them to put their bums on seats: hopes are indeed high in rowing as well as cycling. But has interest in this two-wheeled sport ever been higher? On Monday, it was announced that Sir Chris Hoy would be Team GB’s flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony this Friday as the four-time Olympic gold medal winner polled the most amount of votes among the 542 members of the British team.
But while that’s the undoubted cherry on the cake as far as GB cycling is concerned, the attention must mainly remain with Wiggins. His Tour de France achievement is so considerable that you can already make the case that it won’t be topped by any British accolade at the Games. In fact, the debate has already begun as to where he now places in the pantheon of British greats. The modest Wiggins wouldn’t hear any of it, but it can comfortably sit alongside the likes of Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile, Geoff Hurst’s World Cup final hat-trick of 1966, Fred Perry’s Wimbledon titles and, naturally, Redgrave’s five Olympic Golds in five consecutive Games. And as Wiggins already looks splendid in yellow, it would be rude at this point to not add a golden touch. Back on the podium Sunday, with the eyes of the cycling world upon him, he was handed the microphone and somehow had the composure to unfurl a zinger: “Right, we’re just going to draw the raffle numbers.” Too late, Bradley, you held the winning ticket all along.