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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Back in July, Team Astana was clearly not only the strongest team in the 2009 Tour de France peloton, but also one of the most powerful teams that had been put together in recent years. La Gazzetta dello Sport called it “Fortress Astana”. This caused Padraig to ponder about which team might be the best Tour de France squad of all time. He suggested the 1986 La Vie Claire team of Bernard Hinault, Greg LeMond, Andy Hampsten, Steve Bauer and Jean-François Bernard as the greatest.
I offered the 1908 Peugeot squad, which won all 14 stages in the 1908 Tour and took the top four GC places as the finest Tour de France team ever. I still hold by that view.
So who is number two on my list? Team France between 1930 and 1934.
Until 1930, the Tour as contested by trade teams, as it is today. Alcyon-Dunlop, Alleluia-Wolber and Lucifer-Hutchinson were the Cofidis’, Columbia-HTCs and Garmin-Transitions of their time. But, not surprisingly, loyalties could cross trade team lines and riders from a country could unite to help a fellow compatriot. Also, trade teams could combine to try to bring about an outcome that had been decided in a hotel room. Of course, this still goes on today.
At that time the Tour was run by its founder, an iron-fisted dictator named Henri Desgrange, who wanted his race to be a pure test of an athlete’s will and power. He made the race stupefyingly hard, even forcing the riders to perform their own repairs. As late as 1929 riders still had to fix their own flat tires. Desgrange loathed trade teams and felt they corrupted his race. Since the race’s inception he had tried to negate the effect of teams and domestiques (a term Desgrange invented) but in the end he had to surrender to the fact that massed-start bicycle road racing is a sport contested by teams and won by individuals.
It all came to a head in the 1929 Tour. Maurice Dewaele took the Yellow Jersey after the 323-kilometer stage 10 trip through the Pyrenees. His lead of nearly 15 minutes looked nearly unassailable. But as the Alps loomed, Dewaele fell ill. He was so sick that at one point he couldn’t eat solid food. He was pushed and dragged over the remaining stages by his teammates. More importantly, it seemed that a fix was in. Dewaele in his fragile state was extremely vulnerable to the attacks that never came. Astonishingly, he arrived in Paris still in yellow.
“A corpse has won,” lamented a miserable Desgrange who was convinced that something had to be done to protect the fundamental honesty of the Tour.
What he did was extraordinary. He dispensed with the detested trade teams and instead, put the riders in national squads. There was a French team, an Italian team, one for Belgium, etc. Since the bike makers had a 3-week publicity blackout, they refused to pay the substantial expenses of housing, feeding and transporting the riders. Again, Desgrange did the unexpected. He came up with the publicity caravan. Companies would pay the Tour for the privilege of driving their logo’d trucks and cars in front of the race. The national teams are gone, but the publicity caravan remains.
The effect of this realignment was huge. Instead of being scattered among many teams, the best French riders were now on one team. In 1930, the best stage racers in the world were the French, with the Belgians and Italians formidable but on a slightly lower level.
The early 1930s Team France has to be considered one of the greatest sports dynasties in history. They won 5 straight Tours with 3 different riders. That is a bench with depth. In 1930, the national team format’s first year, they not only won the Tour, they put 6 riders in the top ten in the overall, and team member Charles Pélissier won 8 stages.
Here’s the core of the team:
André Leducq: He won 5 stages in the 1929 Tour and went on to win a total of 25 stages. That remained the record until Merckx won 34. He won the Tour in 1930 and 1932. This was a man with talent. He had been world amateur champion and had won Paris-Roubaix in 1928 and would take Paris-Tours in 1931.
Antonin Magne: He won the tour in 1931 and 1934. Magne was the world pro road champion in 1936 and won the Grand Prix des Nations, then the unofficial world time trial championship, in 1934, ’35, an ’36.
Charles Pélissier: Charles was brother to 1923 Tour winner Henri and the capable but not outstanding Francis (who found later that he was a far better team manager than racer). Pélissier won those 8 stages in the 1930 Tour, which included the final 4 legs of the race. In 1931 he won 4 stages. Pélissier wasn’t part of the 1932 team (he would return in 1933) but Georges Speicher was. Speicher won the Tour and the world road championship in 1933 as well as the 1936 Paris-Roubaix. Also a member of the 1932 squad was Roger Lapébie. He won 5 stages in the 1934 Tour before going of to win the 1937 edition.
We can’t forget some of the other French team members:
Maurice Archambaud: magnificent against the clock but too heavy to win the Tour. He wore yellow but could never seal the deal, losing too much time in the high mountains. Nevertheless, he was an important contributor to the team’s success.
René Vietto: His story of giving up his wheel to allow Magne to win in 1934 when Vietto might very well have won the race himself is one of the legends of the Tour. This was a team that acted as one for a common goal. Vietto ended up wearing Yellow more than any man who didn’t win the Tour. He was one of the greatest climbers in the history of the sport, but both his knees and his time trialing would let him down when it mattered.
The French team was not only talented, it had a magnificent esprit de corps. When Leducq crashed descending the Galibier and thought his chances of winning the 1930 Tour were over, they rallied his spirits and dragged him up to the leaders and led him out for the stage win.
1934 was Team France’s last year of glory when it won 19 of the 23 stages. That is dominance writ large.
Cycling historian Jean-Paul Ollivier thinks the 1933 French team was the greatest assemblage of pre-war cycling talent ever. I think one could pick any or all of the 1930’s Tour teams as the best, and with the exception of the 1908 Peugeot team, one could hardly go wrong.
And then the magic ended. In 1935 Magne crashed out of the Tour and although Pélissier raced the 1935 edition, it was as an independent rider, not part of Team France. With the absence of the leadership these two riders gave the team, the magnificent cohesion that had allowed the French to steamroller their opposition evaporated. Romain Maes of Belgium mercilessly took the French and the rest of the peloton apart. Second-place Ambrogio Morelli of Italy finished almost 18 minutes behind. The best-placed French rider was Speicher, at 54 minutes and 29 seconds.
The only time the French would win the Tour again before the war was in 1937, and the tainted officiating in favor of the French and Lapébie still smells.
The French would come back to dominate the Tour de France during golden age of racing, the 1950s (and beyond), with Louison Bobet ( winner in 1953, ’54, ’55), Roger Walkowiak (1956) and Jacques Anquetil (1957, ’61, ’62, ’63 and ’64).
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When I back up and look at the news one might file under the heading of “doping in cycling” what has been published in the last six months should give us all pause.
Let’s recap a few of the highlights:
- Christian Prudhomme thinks cycling is clean(er) because there were no positive tests at the Tour de France.
- The AFLD says Astana got a free ride at the Tour even though they were the most controlled team there.
- Some cyclists at the Tour de France were on anti-hypertension drugs and while not banned, no one seems to know why healthy endurance athletes would have dangerously high blood pressure.
- Two new drugs likely to boost endurance athletes’ performance are on the market but have yet to be banned.
- Bernard Kohl gives monthly interviews in which he teases out new details of his doping like the last five minutes of a soap opera episode that airs on Friday.
- Jan Ullrich had Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes’ number programmed into his cell phone.
- In 2009, Danilo DiLuca, Mikel Astarloza, Nuno Ribeiro, Isidro Nozal, Hector Guerra, Gabrielle Bosisio, Christian Pfannberger and Antonio Colom all tested positive for EPO or CERA. That’s eight riders caught.
I now return to Christian Prudhomme and his statement regarding doping. What Prudhomme told Reuters last summer was “Cycling has changed.”
He also said, “I recently confirmed that ‘there were no suspected cases’ (during the 2009 Tour de France). This means that the fight against doping progresses.”
Mikel Astarloza’s positive sample was given during the Tour, so that pretty well kills Prudhomme’s implicit belief that the ’09 Tour was clean. The fact that Astarloza’s non-negative result was announced until weeks after the end of the Tour is an unfortunate blemish on the Tour.
Those anti-hypertensive drugs? What could cause athletes in the top one percent of cardiovascular fitness in the world to be concerned about high blood pressure? Maybe blood that moves like sewage as a result of autologous blood doping, EPO or CERA? Hypertension is a recurring theme of blood transfusions.
Oh, and the fact that Fuentes’ number was in Ullrich’s cell phone? No surprise. No one with their eyes open actually thought there was a kite’s chance in a hurricane that Ullrich raced clean. Move on, nothing to see here.
As I mentioned, eight riders have tested positive for EPO or CERA this year. Some will take this news as a reassurance that WADA is improving in its ability to catch dopers. Unfortunately, there is strong anecdotal evidence that some of the riders who have been caught had been doping for a while, which suggests they had evaded some previous doping controls. If some doping controls are being evaded, then logic dictates that there must be riders who are evading detection as we speak. The question then is, what portion of the number of riders using EPO or CERA are these eight? Are they 90 percent of the doping riders? Not likely. We would be lucky if they are 50 percent of the athletes still using EPO or CERA.
So testing is catching some cyclists who are doping while others are evading detection. How do you improve upon this situation? Well, there’s one easy answer: You test every rider every day. Unfortunately, the combined operating budget of both WADA and the UCI simply couldn’t pay for all that testing. So instead, priorities are set, which means that choices must be made about who is tested.
WADA could break up the total number of tests each year and distribute those tests evenly between all professional riders. If you, like Prudhomme, believe that “cycling has changed” then you will also believe that not everyone is doping. Moving forward with that belief you are likely to decide some riders are targeted more than other riders.
So if some riders are going to be targeted for testing more frequently than their peers, the obvious choice is to go after riders who arouse suspicion. That means testing anyone who wins a race—a tactic already employed with good reason. In some parts, they call this profiling. Call it racing while juiced.
So what’s such a program look like? Well, it looks like Astana gets tested 81 times during the Tour de France and the French teams Cofidis and FdJeux were tested 26 times each and Bouygues Telecom was tested 23 times.
Is that fair? It depends on how you define fair. It certainly isn’t an even distribution of resources, but then this isn’t a resource we want distributed evenly, is it? Shouldn’t it be distributed most heavily to the teams and athletes that appear time after time on the podium? Generally speaking, there’s little risk of seeing a Cofidis, FdJeux or Bouygues Telecom rider atop the podium, whereas Astana and Saxo Bank had stellar seasons.
Johan Bruyneel doesn’t believe that the high level of scrutiny his team received was warranted. We all know otherwise. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the AFLD claiming that Astana received preferential treatment during the Tour.
This may be the single strangest piece of news as regards doping in cycling. It is surprising because it shows that there isn’t a united front involving the UCI, WADA and the AFLD. The AFLD is, in fact, a bit player in the doping fight, a service provider to WADA and the UCI, not an actual portion of the enforcement apparatus.
Allow me a moment to draw an analogy. Lance Armstrong has admitted he can’t beat Alberto Contador mano a mano. So what is his game plan for the 2010 Tour de France? He has already revealed that he plans to beat Contador’s team and leave the Spaniard isolated.
Unfortunately, the doping fight has no one winner. Even though a fractured Astana still won the Tour de France, a rift between the AFLD and the UCI only results in a weakened fight against doping. Stranger still was the fact that samples taken by the AFLD of five French riders on the same French team were sent to the lab with their full identifying information on the samples. That hardly constitutes anonymous and blatantly violates the Code and International Standard of Testing.
If you are a doper, knowing there is unrest in the enforcement camp must bring you satisfaction.
Next: Bernard Kohl and the new generation of dopers
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Agence France Presse has reported the death of Frank Vandenbroucke. The one-time great Belgian cyclist who scored 51 wins in his career was on vacation in Senegal when he died. Preliminary reports are that he died of a pulmonary embolism.
Most recently, Vandenbroucke had been riding for the Cinelli-Down Under team and had been a columnist for the Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. A byline had appeared as recently as last week.
Readers of RKP are well aware of Vandenbroucke’s troubled past. Following a stellar season in 1999 when he won Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Omloop Het Volk and two stages of the Vuelta a Espana, Vandenbroucke’s career spun out of control following an initial drug bust in 1999. His additional drug busts, DUI and suicide attempt are well documented and reducing his troubles to a handful of nouns is a disservice.
Vandenbroucke’s descent into depression and further drug use is eerily similar to that of Marco Pantani. It would be easy to reduce his story to a cautionary tale: Kids, don’t do drugs!
However, the reality is much more shocking. Our body of knowledge about the use of performance-enhancing drugs really hasn’t included the assumption that top-ranked cyclists busted for drugs will turn to recreational drugs and a plummet into depression. Following his bust, Vandenbroucke teammate David Millar says he fell into a terrible depression he buried in alcohol, but somehow he turned it around.
Could it be a pattern is emerging? Indications are Marco Pantani turned to recreational drugs following his bust for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Same for Jan Ullrich. We know Tyler Hamilton battled depression following his suspension for a positive test.
What do we have to expect from Mr. Full Disclosure, Bernard Kohl? (I’ll address his ongoing monthly interviews with new revelations in another post.)
I’ve made my peace with Vandenbroucke and the riders who won the Classics and Grand Tours of the 1990s. Given the circumstances, he was truly one of the better riders of his generation and deserves an extra measure of panache in our memories for announcing—before the race—on which hill he would attack at the ’99 L-B-L. The shot above of him at the finish has defined for many the hard-man style the Belgians are known for: the legs coated with embrocation, the shoe covers and arm warmers pushed to the wrists; only a man for the Classics can make 55 degrees look like a bright summer day.
Despite flashes of brilliance (what else would you call his second place at the 2003 Tour of Flanders), VdB never returned to his winning ways following his first bust.
Even if you hated Vandenbroucke for his drug use, I hope you can lament his death and the loss that means for cycling. He was, after all, one of our own, a guy who loved to go fast, a hard man who understood style, had a heart for the red line, and a family man who leaves behind both his parents and a daughter.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Among American cycling fans Jonathan Vaughters’ Garmin-Slipstream formation has enjoyed the loyal love afforded a hometown team. That love has been based more on the team being “American” than on having actually kicked a lot of ass.
Of course, it isn’t the only ProTour team registered in the U.S., as Bob Stapleton’s Columbia-HTC team is based in San Luis Obispo, California. However, despite an American owner and one of two title sponsors being American, most cycling fans still perceive the team as European for two simple reasons: Most of its sport directors came from the former T-Mobile team and it has almost no American riders.
Critics of the team have noted a dissonance between the amount of media attention Garmin garners wherever it goes, and its results. The undercurrent being—the team really hasn’t earned its status.
Many of the headlines the team has generated have come as a result of its outspoken anti-doping stance. On paper there are several teams with anti-doping programs as stringent as Garmin’s, but Jonathan Vaughters is the media’s go-to guy for quotes on how to run a clean cycling team. To be fair, no one else is as articulate on the challenges a pro cyclist faces or the mixed signals a rider might receive when trying to balance the need to produce results with the need to recover.
Until recently, most of the team’s wins have come in stages of smaller stage races and four national championships. A stage win and the leader’s pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia were all it claim for Grand Tour performances beyond a host of top-five finishes in stages and general classification.
But in less than a week two different riders, Tyler Farrar and Ryder Hesjedal, won two stages of the Vuelta a Espana, giving the team its first Grand Tour stage wins. Back home, the team defended its title at the Tour of Missouri with David Zabriskie’s time trial win that culminated in overall victory. It was the first stage race victory for the talented time trialist.
Unless you’ve been sleeping through September, you know all that. Why bother to note this? There are a great many teams with little ability to win outside of their star rider. Garmin-Slipstream won stages in two different stage races—meaning two different squads—despite the fact that Christian Vande Velde had to withdraw from the Tour of Missouri.
It’s been easy to slag on Tom Danielson for his failed promise. A probably top-10 at the Vuelta doesn’t measure up to the promises that he would be America’s next Tour de France winner, after Lance Armstrong, of course. That said, until he was struck with a virus, he was lying fourth on the general classification. Even so, he stands to give his team its second top-10 finish in a Grand Tour this year. That may seem an achievement of dubious value but consider that Cofidis, AG2R La Mondiale, Euskaltel-Euskadi and Columbia-HTC won’t post two Grand Tour top-tens and Quick Step won’t even post one.
Tyler Farrar’s three stage wins at the Eneco Tour of Benelux are significant more for what they taught Farrar and his teammates and as a confidence-building exercise than for the wins themselves. Those wins were an imperative step toward winning his first Grand Tour stage.
For a team in only its first year of the ProTour, Garmin-Slipstream deserves recognition for the team’s rise to earned prominence. Still a darling of the media, the team has results to justify the interviews and TV time.
Photo: John Pierce, Photosport International