Tuesdays with Wilcockson: Wiggins—Always destined for greatness

 Bradley Wiggins takes stage 1 at the Tour of Romandie

It can be fun working as a journalist in cycling. Not only do you get to travel to distant lands, interact with different peoples and witness amazing feats, you also get to know the athletes who make cycling the most beautiful sport in the world. One of the more intriguing characters I’ve met is Bradley Wiggins, a fellow Brit, who celebrated his 32nd birthday this past weekend by winning his third major international stage race in less than a year: It was the Critérium du Dauphiné last June, Paris-Nice in March and now the Tour de Romandie.

I first interviewed Wiggo—as his countrymen like to call him—over lunch at an English pub, The Flask, near North London’s Hampstead Heath on a grey December day in 2000. The tall, pale-faced Brit was then 20 years old and still an amateur track racer. He’d already traveled the world and was dressed like an American college kid in khaki pants, dark-blue turtle-neck sweater and a baseball cap; but he gave away his Englishness with a broad, monotone London accent.

I’d been intrigued by Wiggins for some time because his dad, Gary Wiggins, was an Australian racer I’d seen compete with Falcon, a British pro team, in the mid-1970s, and later in a bunch of European six-day races that I reported. Gary had a useful sprint in both road races and on the track, but he was never more than a journeyman professional. After he married in 1979, he and his English wife Linda moved to Ghent, Belgium, where Bradley was born. But his parents split a couple of years later and their son was only five when he and his mother returned to London.

“I wasn’t in contact with me dad for 17 years really,” Wiggins said at the London pub, “but me mum always spoke about him, and has obviously got a lot of pictures and stuff. I tried [cycling] out at 12 years of age … and it went from there.”

With cycling in his blood, young Brad “tried it out” at London’s venerable Herne Hill velodrome. He learned the ropes from the other members of the Archer Road Club, the same cycling club his father joined when he arrived from Australia at age 23. As a schoolboy racer, Brad won a national championship in the points race at age 15, soon stepped up to the national junior track team, and placed fourth in the points race at the 1997 junior worlds in South Africa.

It was the following year, at age 18, that Wiggins made his true breakthrough at the junior worlds in Havana, Cuba. After qualifying fastest in the 3000-meter individual pursuit, he raced Germany’s Daniel Palicki in the final. “It was an exciting final but I was totally in control,” the confident Wiggins told me. “He was still two seconds in the lead going into the final two laps. It was just the style I rode … pulling out a sprint at the end.” That victory over Palicki by almost three seconds gave Wiggins the incentive to shoot for glory at the Sydney Olympic Games, which were two years away.

“The Olympics is what I’ve set my aim at since ’92 when I watched Chris Boardman win the [pursuit] gold in Barcelona,” he said. “I’d just started cycling, and watching that was pretty inspiring. I thought I’d love to do that. So I thought Sydney, at 20 years old, should be a realistic goal.”

Wiggins rode two events at those Games, taking fourth in the Madison with Rob Hayles and a bronze medal in the team pursuit — a disappointment after he led the British foursome to the fastest time in the qualifying round. For me, that was a reminder that at about the same age, my boyhood hero Tom Simpson also won an Olympic bronze medal in the team pursuit in Australia — at Melbourne in 1956.

As a result, after that first interview with Wiggins a dozen year ago, I wrote in VeloNews: “Not since Simpson died in 1967 has Britain produced a young rider with the potential of Wiggins. … This soft-spoken Englishman has had a start to his career that’s as every bit as precocious as Simpson’s. And besides following a similar path to the former world road champion, Wiggins even looks and races like him.”

Unlike Simpson, who went to Europe to focus on road racing and ditch track racing (other than lucrative six-day contracts), Wiggins’s goal at age 20 was to win three track gold medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He did win the individual pursuit, while taking silver and bronze in other events, and he stayed with the Great Britain national track program through 2008 in Beijing (where he won two more golds).

By being part of Britain’s most successful Olympic team, in any sport, Wiggins achieved domestic fame and earned enough money through the Sky-sponsored track program to buy a farmhouse in northwest England, where he lives with wife Cathy and their two children Ben and Isabella. Perhaps he needed to do that, because it helped gave him the confidence he’s now showing as the leader of Team Sky at the world’s leading stage races. But Wiggins might have followed a path similar to Simpson’s and achieved the status he now has in road racing much sooner in his career.

In the season after that 2000 interview, Wiggins raced with his national road team and won two European stage races, Luxembourg’s Flèche du Sud (where Fränk Schleck was in the field) and Spain’s Cinturon de Mallorca. He then spent six seasons with French pro teams, focusing on winning prologue time trials; but the muscle weight he put on training for track pursuits stopped him making much progress in road racing. The only road win he took (other than short time trials) came in September 2005 when he took the hilliest stage of the Tour de l’Avenir, finishing three minutes ahead of the field after a long breakaway with his then Crédit Agricole teammate Saul Raisin.

Wiggins has always been outspoken in condemning riders who dope, and when his Cofidis team withdrew from the 2007 Tour de France after one of its riders tested positive, the Englishman threatened to quit the sport. That led him to signing in 2008 with America’s Team High Road because of its fiercely anti-doping policy, and then to the equally clean team, Garmin-Slipstream, the following year.

With the Beijing Olympics behind him, Wiggins finally focused on the road and through the winter and spring of 2009 he shed 7 kilos (about 15 pounds) from his track-racer’s body. The result was the skinny bike racer we see today who has applied his former skills to his new ones—during his brilliant fourth-place finish at the 2009 Tour, Wiggins described his method of riding the mountain passes as “mentally tackling them like a pursuit.”

In switching to Team Sky in 2010 (after prolonged and sometimes painful negotiations to buy him out of his Garmin contract), Wiggins returned to the to the coaching personnel at British Cycling, led by team boss Dave Brailsford, with whom he’d trained for all those pursuit medals. It’s taken them awhile to discover the best schedule to bring Wiggins to peak form when he needs it, but by alternating high-altitude training camps in Tenerife with high-profile stage races it seems like they’ve discovered a winning formula.

After that London pub lunch back in 2000, I wrote: “You may not have heard of Bradley Wiggins, but unless something drastic halts his current progress, his name will be one that resonates through the cycling world in the upcoming decades.”

Perhaps this decade (or even this year!) will see Wiggins achieve the dream that Simpson had in the 1960s: become the first Brit to win the Tour de France.


Image: Photoreporter Sirotti

Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson

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  1. Jesus from Cancun

    I was wondering how long it would take Mr. Wilcockson to write a praise to Wiggo. Hail Wiggo!

    I am typing with a smile. I am a big Wiggo fan too. I like to see trackies doing the conversion to road racing and winning big races. But I liked Wiggo even more during his last few races with Garmin.

    There was a lot of talk about how fair or unfair it was from him to leave Garming for Sky. There were rumors for months, and some people didn’t like the way he left the team that saw him grow up to be a Tour contender.
    But few people noticed the way he rode for his teammates until the end of the season. He didn’t need to do it; he was already a rising star, and stars don’t extend their seasons to ride for teammates. Stars finish their big goal and go on vacation.

    Wiggo did several races as a super domestique for the guys who killed themselves for him earlier in the year, and helped them a few wins for their own. That is very respectable, especially because he was not going to need their services ever again.

    I am convinced that if nothing strange happens, Wiggo must stand on the podium of the Tour this year. 100 kms of time trialing sounds like taylor made for him. He might as well take the yellow home.

    Now, I hope that Cav’s quest for the green jersey doesn’t take anything from the team efforts. It would be interesting to see Sky taking both, but they might as well have to make choices sooner or later.

  2. Jesus from Cancun

    By the way, his sprint win at Romandie was not unly unexpected. It was the ugliest sprint I have ever seen! “Sitting? Standing? Sitting? Standing? Who cares, as long as nobody comes past”
    And nobody did. Frickin’ impressive.

  3. Wsquared

    I really like Wiggo. He was on my 2011 TDF fantasy team and may be on again this year. He really looked on form in Romandie.

    I wonder though if he’s one of Fortune’s favorite sons? Is he “lucky” enough to win the TDF? Some riders seem to have lots of luck, others not so much and they never get over the hump. I know it an intangeable, but it takes luck to win a big grand tour, geometrically more to win multiple tours.

  4. gmknobl

    I was disappointed that he didn’t finish out his contract with Garmin and to me, it was a loyalty thing. However, loyalty can come at the expense of personal goals and though it may be a bit selfish it is also a way to better personal growth. I think that it is entirely possible that his current ability would be one year delayed had he stayed with Garmin, what with his desire to lead a team uncontestedly, work with his former mentor and, let’s face it, go for the money.

    I do enjoy watching him and believed he was going to be pretty good years ago. I was quite surprised that Garmin got him in the first place and that Cofidis didn’t stand on their heads to keep him (with one year at the very good but doomed High Road). I figured they’d turn him around but maybe not be able to keep him or get him to the top step. And maybe he figured that last too.

    In any case, he looks like someone who will not necessarily win a mountain top finish but will do his best to TT his way to the top in a respectable time and then blast others in the regular time trials. Does that sound a bit like an Indurain? What wasn’t figured for most GT contenders in recent years is his ability to really sprint faster than any GT guy when absolutely needed. Not many have had that ability and it’s a delight to see it done as it’s usually considered a waste of energy in a GT. Bar unforeseen injury or accident, which he has a good chance of avoiding this year with a more concentrated SKY, he will be on the podium and with such a large number of time trials in this years TdF, he has the best opportunity he’s likely to see until he retires.

  5. marvo larvo

    only downside those eurosport announcers have such a man crush on wiggins, even when he’s 20 spots back on a climb “i’m british too, go wiggo!!!!” (say this as you pretend to bite your fingernails in suspense)

  6. jaas

    they better not use up any riders towing cavendish up the hills. He can hang on to the back of the car like last year

  7. randomactsofcycling

    There are a lot of parallels here with one Cadel Evans. The ‘off road’ development and success, the switch to the road and the limited team support and the wretched luck.
    I wonder if he isn’t going to lose too much time on the climbs to actually take the top step of the podium.
    I think this year is going to host a heck of a Tour.

  8. Cat4Fodder

    One thing that I just find odd about Wiggo (and again – I am not refuting his talent), but his physical features seem at odds with an elite athlete. Look at photos of him, and he just seems…well…his body proportions just seem a bit out of sorts…I know…unfair.

    But every photo I see of him (such as the one above) makes him look like a flat chested middle-aged woman.

  9. gmknobl

    Give him a break Cat-Fodder. He’s British! (Okay, call off the dogs. It’s a joke, fer Chris’sake. At least I didn’t say something about his teeth.)

    In all seriousness, he doesn’t exude muscularity but I don’t either and chest muscles don’t make the road rider. If you take a look at his legs you’ll understand his power. I’d bet the rest of him is muscular enough and likely down to well-nigh unhealthy levels of low body fat.

    Personally, the just-next-door-guy type of appearance and attitude is part of his charm. He really seems like someone you’d go have a beer with at the neighborhood bar, unlike some in flash beer commercials. Hmmm… I bet there’s an ad guy out there somewhere itching to make use of that.

  10. Cat4Fodder

    Look – I agree entirely that pro-road guys typically do not have the build of Andre Greipel. However – perhaps due to his aggressive weight loss, but he looks to have female hips.

  11. NickV

    Wsquared; I know what you mean about the ‘luck’ of the Tour, but if our Cuddles could finally receieve some good fortune, get through 21 days unscathed and take the first Yellow back down under, then I think Wiggo can too.
    It’ll most likely be those two fighting it out this year and I wonder if Wiggo has the grit and graft to better Evans.

    armybikerider; Don’t worry about the hair, he always rocks the Mod styles during the early season, but cuts it short for business time – the TdF.

  12. Big Mikey

    Wiggo ain’t gonna do it, folks. He’s a podium chance, for sure, but he won’t be able to keep it together for three weeks, not when everybody is watching him.

    Every year, the media paints pictures of guys who are destined win the TdF (see VandeVelde, Hesjedal, Valverde, Michael Rogers, the list goes on and on), and they don’t. This is another one of those.

    That said, that’s why they race the race.

  13. GZA

    I think its disrespectful to speak about athletes body shapes.

    And what exactly has Tilford got to share? Sounds like cowardice to me

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