Tuesdays with Wilcockson: Wiggins—Always destined for greatness
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
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