How do you say goodbye to a champion when the champion won’t stop winning? After 17 years, Sir Bradley Wiggins is waving goodbye… but, there’s a legacy lying here that will never be forgotten.
Manchester, 2002. Team mates on the road line up against each other on the track to contest the Commonwealth Title in the Individual Pursuit. Britain against Australia, the ashes of the track. One on home territory and one on foreign, an opportunity to be the hero. The young Brit rounds the bend of the velodrome for the final time, just a few metres from potential glory. But, the fairy-tale was not to be and the Australian took the win. To the victor went the spoils.
Fast forward 14 years, that young Brit has gone on to become one of the most decorated athletes in history and has entered his final year as a professional cyclist. Bradley Wiggins may have lost in Manchester, but that was only a building block for that ‘kid from Kilburn’ in his pursuit of glory. A father, a fashion designer, a Mod-revivalist who dines with rocker Miles Kane and plays guitar with Paul Weller, Wiggins became so much more than just a bike rider. He doesn’t fit the typical mould of a cyclist, sporting rock star tattoos up his arms and a beard that many would see to be an aerodynamic disaster. So as the man who has become a Sir plans to call time on a career spanning 17 years, it’s more than appropriate to look back on how it all began, and how we all came here with him.
British cycling often moulds their champions of the future on the boards of Manchester at the National Cycling Centre and Wiggins was no different. He developed into a promising young talent and rose up through the ranks, starting at Manchester and continuing through the Athens Olympics, where he won the treble set of medals on the track, and coming to a temporary track hiatus after the Beijing 2008 games. Wiggins at this point was a veteran on the boards and decided to seek more. And the rest became history.
In 2010 British Cycling launched the now powerhouse team of men’s road racing, Team Sky, and scouted Wiggins to be the leader, to which he confessed “Moving to Team Sky is like coming home.” They had one goal, albeit, an ambitious goal: To win the Tour de France within 5 years. Questionable? Yes. Probable? Maybe. With Wiggins at the helm, anything could happen. Being a new team, from a country who had never won the Tour with an athlete who had only come to fruition on the road in the last 4 years, it was bold, even getting up the noses of some European teams.
The road to the goal was never going to be easy, and was made harder in 2011 during stage 7 of the Tour. Despite the dominant display the team had been showing since the 2011 Tour Down Under, the Tour was the one race they needed to work and simply failed to fire in. Around 40km from the finish in Châteauroux, Wiggins crashed and was forced to retire injured with a broken collarbone. A spanner in a wheel that Sky didn’t need. The only option? Leave the leadership to a backup rider, salvage some pride, and come back in 2012. This would turn out to be one of the biggest years yet.
Sky arrived at the Tour with Paris-Nice, Dauphine and Romandie victories under their belt, palmares to scare any rival at the biggest race in the world. Wiggins came with a team half preparing for the tour and half preparing for the prospect of a home Olympics. Wiggins gained the yellow jersey after placing 3rd on stage 7 but the following weeks would prove a test to both his athletic and personal mindset.
Then came the Froome fiasco. They say to keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer, to watch your back for rouge attacks on climbs and break away groups staying out the front a little too long for comfort. But as a leader, wearing the Malliot Jaune, you never expect one of those attacks to come from inside your own armada. Christopher Froome distanced himself from Wiggins with four kilometres from the finish, gaining at 20 second gap over his team leader. Sky exploded. Essentially, this was a contest of the leadership. Why was he doing this? Could he be trusted? That bond never recovered, and those wounds never fully healed. This was a day where Wiggins became the marked man by his own teammate. It was even revealed that after the stage, he messaged Sports Director, Sean Yates, saying “I think it would be better for everyone if I went home” and that it “felt like Froomey had stabbed him in the back.” Where it would lead? Carnage.
So he won, sideburns and all, and became the first Briton in the process. Overnight, he became the nation’s hero and suddenly the eyes of Britain turned to a new Olympic hopeful to win gold in front of a home crowd. From the start of season, Sky new that going for the Tour-Olympic double was ambitious, but then, that’s just how they worked. Wiggins was a demon against the clock, being 6”3 tall and shade of skinny bordering on anorexic, his physique envious of every other Time Trialer on the day, thus delivering him to that first Olympic Medal on the road and not the track. The crowd wore sideburns cut from the newspaper honouring the trademark style of their hero, as he sat on his throne displaying peace signs to onlookers. It’s easy to see why Wiggo is just that popular.
Wiggins arrived at the 2016 track world championships with partner-in-crime Mark Cavendish to compete in (and eventually win) the Maddison. The next chapter of the Wiggins story? It went onward to Rio and it won gold. But never dismiss a champion just because they’re calling time. That time may be temporary, and more often than not, they’re back within a year. Chapeau, Sir Wiggo. May the next chapter be as glorious and eventful as the rest.
Images C/O Sporting News.