In September 2012, issue #57 of RIDE Cycling Review went on sale. It had features on the Olympics in London and the 99th Tour de France, the 95th Giro d’Italia, and all the usual material that, in this instance, made up a 260 page edition. As we near the end of production on RIDE #61 and consider the coverage of the 100th Tour de France, it seemed appropriate to revisit what was written last July.
His Tour. “the tranquility of solitude”
In Paris it was over. Until then nothing was certain. “Marginal gains” add up. Britain’s Bradley Wiggins was destined to win the Tour de France in 2012.
After taking the lead, one thing was repeated daily: “A day closer to Paris.”
Once there, he stood on top of the podium: winner of the 99th edition.
He rode the perfect race. A team of champions helped him achieve the victory and despite what some suggest, it was achieved with panache.
Curiously there are critics of the way that the 99th Tour de France was won. Apparently there wasn’t enough panache or the racing was too predictable or Sky’s dominance ruined what might have been a bigger spectacle if… ah, if the winner wasn’t so strong. This is a Field of Dreams sequence: “If you build it, he will come.” The team was established with an intention: to win the maillot jaune. It did that. They built it, and Bradley Wiggins arrived.
— yellow jersey in the sky —
The 99th Tour de France.
“Wiggo’s Big Loop”.
The Hexagon. Some say it’s a shape that resembles the map of France. Even those who haven’t been there know the terrain. When you start tracing a path around it, and consider the landscape, it’s easy to slip into the routine of going clockwise and anti-clockwise on a course that aims, inevitably, back to the centre, or a little north – where the Seine does its squiggle in the middle of a peripherique that houses the French capital. The Tour de France may end in Paris but the big bouts of the race that’s been around since 1903 are elsewhere on the chart. Last year it was Pyrenees first, Alps to follow and an Australian won. In 2012 it went from the Alps to the Pyrenees, but as early as stage seven we knew who the strongest was.
Were it not for the seven seconds he lost to Fabian Cancellara on the streets of Liège, Bradley Wiggins would have led the Tour from start to finish. He eventually got the yellow jersey at the top of a climb in the Haute-Saône; to the north of the Alps proper, on a road specifically made for the race’s arrival, a new epoch in the GC rider genre emerged. Chris Froome won the stage to La Planche des Belles Filles. Cadel Evans was second. Wiggins was third. Vincenzo Nibali fourth. By the time the peloton reached Paris, one of this selection missed the podium.
It seemed odd. This was to be Cadel’s year. He had prepared perfectly for the challenge. Before the race started the owner of Team BMC, Andy Rihs, said that he was already considering preparations for a party in Paris. That happened a year earlier and it changed how a nation saw cycling. Australia was really part of the Tour now. And this year the country was there with a team of its own. Orica-GreenEdge made its debut and the proliferation of flags with the Southern Cross was obvious. But it was the Union Jack that was most prevalent, certainly that’s how it was by the finish. Bradley Wiggins had repeated what Evans achieved in 2011: he is the first from his nation to win the Tour de France. That changes everything.
If you’ve been around the hexagon – or even just watched as others have made the journey – you know how things unfold: where the highlights are, where the peaks and low points are. You learn the topography and understand the nature of each mountain range. Undulating areas earn their part on the itinerary and so do places known for their wind or good roads – or poor ones – but it’s the Alps and Pyrenees which are two regular features of a contest that’s part of French culture. With the help of riders like Evans and Wiggins it has become a global phenomenon and all around the world people are aware of the events that take place in, or near, the six-sided shape.
There are names that now mean more to sport fans in Great Britain than they might have in June. Tournai, La Planche des Belles Filles, Besançon, Annonay, Brive-la-Gaillarde… Paris: it’s where riders from Team Sky celebrated victories in 2012. But it was all the way from Liège to the French capital that the blue line set a new standard.
“Believe in better.” That’s what it says inside the collar of the jerseys worn by Wiggins, Froome, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Mark Cavendish, Bernhard Eisel, Christian Knees, Richie Porte, Michael Rogers and Kanstantsin Sivtsov. Motivational references are tossed around in all manner of places these days. Status updates, twitpics, tattoos, painted on the roads that lead riders to the top of mountain passes… on stickers gracing the top tubes of Pinarello frames.
“This is the blue line… and it challenges everything we do.”
Get what you like out of the message but it’s there for riders to see each time they get on their bikes. Exactly what the line does is difficult to determine but one thing is certain: we saw a lot of a familiar line of riders at the front of the peloton at the 99th Tour de France. For Wiggins, blue turned to yellow and, by the time he’d reached the end of the 3,496.6km journey, he discovered what it was like to achieve the pinnacle of what can be done as a professional cyclist. And his appraisal in Paris? “It doesn’t feel as you imagine it would,” he said.
“It’s strange, really. It’s very surreal.”
We like to believe things are getting better. If we didn’t have optimism, what would make us follow the lines we do? If life was status quo, what’s the point? And even if great things have been done before, does it mean there’s a time to be complacent? For Wiggins, it might have seemed strange. But to many others – in Britain where he lives, or in Belgium where he was born, or in Australia his father’s country, or in Kenya where his closest rival is from, or in the hexagon where it all unfoled – it was very real. It’s a victory for the ages, one only considered after gold was won and Olympic conquests became reality.
At this particular level, in his realm, the Tour is bigger than the Games: more challenging, more of a complete test than just being able to go fast around a velodrome, more compelling, for it takes participants outside and puts them on the road towards the unknown. The line conceived by the race director sends the peloton up mountains and into valleys, into the wind and rain. Through it all, great emotions are evoked. It takes riders out of their comfort zone and allows them to display their courage. It’s just sport for sport’s sake, but it creates an environment when good can become great.
“A few years ago, I felt I was failing as an athlete, I never really fulfilled my potential,” explained Wiggins about why he altered his ambitions. “The last few years, with the right people around me, I’ve started to realise my potential.”
He rides a bike just like his father before him did. But don’t compare Bradley Wiggins with Gary Wiggins. They share the same name and genes and they occasionally spoke, but the son admits that he never really knew his dad. Not properly at least. Gary was gone by the time Bradley was two. They would meet again over the years but these weird reunions wouldn’t happen again after 26 January 2008. That’s when a son found out that his father had died. The details are sketchy, and terribly sad. In the end, it was the booze that did it. Other things contributed to the downfall but alcohol was a major factor.
Gary was found dead in Newcastle, NSW four-and-a-half years before Bradley became the winner of the Tour.
The life led by one was not what the other wanted to follow. When explaining his motivation for striving to win the Tour, Wiggo offered three simple words: “never have regrets”.
The best beer ever might be the one you never had. For a while, Wiggins had admitted, it was easy for him to open bottle after bottle and then get some rest. There is tranquillity in solitude but it shouldn’t be taken to the extreme. He was happy with his place in the world but soon realised that he had the capacity to make a difference by teaming up with motivated people and working towards a lofty goal.
With three gold medals from two Olympiads, Wiggins was already a superstar cyclist in Britain. Even before successfully defending his individual pursuit title in 2008, however, he was aware of the ramifications that a single-minded, narcissistic approach to his racing was having. “It was a great relief when it was over,” he told me about the Games in Athens in 2004 when he beat Brad McGee to win. “This one thing consumed my life for so long. The prospect of the pursuit final at the Olympics became a being of its own accord. It dictated how I lived my life. It caused arguments with family members… it had an impact on all sorts of things.”
That’s what he said at the start of 2005. But then he was a track rider who plied his trade as a domestique on the road. “Everything I did was for the Olympics,” he said seven years before he won his fourth gold medal (this time from the TT on the road, using a bike with gears and brakes). Back in 2005 he was in the midst of a succession of transfers through French trade teams that were satisfied with his approach and happy he could occasionally offer a service to their star riders. But as for eking out a result of his own? Nah, he didn’t need to. He’d just ride, collect a pay cheque, live the life of a pro cyclist and win pursuits so he had some sway at salary negotiation time.
He continued his explanation of what it was like in his formative years as a pro. He raced on the road but only with a view to success on the velodrome. “Whether it was doing a lead-out for Thor Hushovd or whatever, it all related to those 4,000m that I would ride in Athens. And then it was over in a bit over four minutes. I didn’t even put my hands up after the finish because it was just such a relief that it was all over and it was done the way it should have happened.”
In 2012, he did salute his successes. But the distances were longer, the terrain more complicated, and the weight of being favourite all added up to a greater sense of relief even if, once it was all final, it still seemed “strange”. He was no longer just riding a bike for the sake of it. He was riding a fine line and it was challenging everything he does.
It changed in 2009. He didn’t reach for the next beer, picked himself up and began to reinvent himself: to become a ‘roadie’ and the memories of the ‘trackie’ – his father as a six-day man, or himself as the last Olympic individual pursuit gold medallist – could sustain him in his later days. At the age of 29 he turned himself around, lost significant weight and started climbing mountains instead of going around and around a track. On the velodrome he knew he was good. According to Wiggins, “That’s where I was: in my comfort zone, I lived off of that.
“I was capable of so much more and the people around me were obviously aware of that. I’ve always had the engine, it’s just getting those people to get that out of me and that’s taken time. It’s taken me a few years to mature.”
He justifiably gives credit to the Garmin team he joined in 2009 after a year with Bob Stapleton’s Highroad crew that allowed him the freedom to chase the gold medals – individual and team pursuit – in Beijing. Before the 2008 Olympics, he’d done the Tour twice before: in 2006 when his best result was 16th in the Strasbourg prologue (and he finished 124th overall), and 2007 when he was fourth in the London prologue but never made it to the finish because a Cofidis team-mate failed a test for testosterone. A year on from the Floyd Landis debacle, tolerance of stupidity was minimal and the positive for Cristian Moreni meant the exclusion of his whole team.
The Tour route in 2009, however, suited his characteristics: the TT specialist finished third in Monaco on the first day of the 97th edition. Only Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin were ahead. There was a team time trial on day four. Garmin finished second, 18 seconds behind Astana with both Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong. Wiggins dropped to sixth overall. That was as far as he would fall behind on GC before he finished fourth in Paris, 36 seconds behind the Texan.
“For once I was in a team where I felt I had freedom,” he said of Garmin in 2009. “I could just be myself. There were no stereotypes or little cliques… it was a great team and it’s one of the reasons I started performing well.”
Team Sky was born and it needed a star. A protracted contract negotiation period ended positively financially for Wiggins (and Garmin, as he still had a year left on his contract with Slipstream Sports) and it all meant that he would start his 10th season as a pro with his seventh trade team: a British one that wanted him as the outright leader. A lost season rolled by in 2010 when, after the first mountain stage at the Tour, he was out of title contention. He didn’t search for excuses. He was blunt with his appraisal and, in typical Wiggo language, admitted that he stuffed up: 24th overall wasn’t indicative of what he was capable of and he vowed to return stronger.
As we trace the history of Wiggins’ development as a rider, we see a pattern of success emerging. His second season at Sky started well: pragmatism and professionalism were having the desired effect. In March, he was third overall in Paris-Nice. By June he was winning: first in the Critérium du Dauphiné of 2011 was a strong sign that it was coming together as planned before the big objective. Good form matters little when bones break and, in stage nine of the Tour de France, he hit the road and was out of the race. His team got to Paris with a pair of stage wins for Boasson Hagen and a little more experience of what it was like to contest the biggest race of all.
Cycling prospered in Australia last year; 2011 was a good time for the sport here because of what Cadel Evans achieved. The champion of the Tour de France receives a special place in the hearts of people who would otherwise not care about bike racing. Success in this race is what the masses understand.
Bradley Wiggins’ victories and the many other great success stories from Team GB in 2012 have inspired a nation. A day after he became the first British rider to win the maillot jaune BBC Radio held a talkback session with the theme: ‘Is Wiggins going to be the sports star of the [European] Summer?’ It was acknowledged that the Olympics were six days from starting and that much more was yet to come but the prevailing mood was that… well, who could physically do more than what he did? But, I added during my contribution, it needed to take into account all the things that took him to the victories that were most noted. Of course he won the Tour de France. That alone makes him a candidate for this fictional title that was dreamed up for the sake of talk-back fodder. Before July he set precedents in races in February, March, April, May and June.
After his fall in the ninth stage last year, Wiggins watched the race from his home in Britain. The image of Evans taking a yellow jersey that might well have been his inspired him to the end. He noted the emotions generated by watching a rider from what was previously the outer reaches of the cycling world take the title. There were three moments when the Sky leader admitted to feeling like the pressure was lifting and that he could soon climb out of the “bubble” he put himself in to protect himself from all the attention that going into the Tour as outright favourite could put on a person.
The first realisation came as the 99th Tour reached the final mountain-top finish. “Today it was more a case of everyone faltering around us,” he said at Peyragudes in the Pyrenees. “We just continued what we were doing… once we saw that [Vincenzo] Nibali had cracked at the top of the Peyresourde, we knew we didn’t have the danger of him attacking in the final so it was at that point that I knew it was pretty much over. We rode away from the rest of the field and I lost concentration – I was thinking of lots of different things at the time.
“Chris,” he admitted about the finale of stage 17, “wanted more but the fight was gone from me at that point.”
The second instance of recognition happened in Chartres after he threw a right-fisted victory salute following his win in the penultimate stage. “From the moment you start cycling as a kid, it’s about this,” he said in the yellow jersey. “You get into it and everyone dreams of winning the Tour de France but to cross the line… well, I kind of summed it up in that punch.
“For the last 10 or 15km, I was thinking about everything really: from my childhood to this point, the days I got into cycling, my family, my mother, my wife and children… and it was all for them really. This is everything. It’s a lifestyle,” he concluded in Chartres. “And I’ve learned to live like this these last few years at the sacrifice of so many other things in my life, including the people around me… the reason I feel like this is because I have a sense of what I’ve achieved because I know my cycling and I can’t really sum up it up in articulate terms. What happened out there is just incredible.”
The third time he noted that victory was his came after he stepped down from the podium and knew he would forever after be known as “the first British Tour champion”.
Evans understands what happens next but Wiggins’ time out of the bubble didn’t last long. A lap around the Champs-Elysées and then he switched back into race mode.
He made a name for himself at Olympic Games from the past and now there was another title to win, only this time he’d do so in London with “his” people all around him. He helped Dave Brailsford and the rest of the enormous entourage at Sky realise what they said was possible: to get a British rider to win the Tour de France within five years. The team started out with an enormous budget in 2009 and, admittedly, didn’t have the season all had hoped for. There were a few wins here and there but no one accepted demoralisation: the seed had been planted and from it big things would grow.
Part of the objective of what’s been done with this sport in Britain now is to use the popularity of competition to inspire people to ride bikes. It’s happening. There are tax advantages for people who cycle. There is infrastructure being implemented to ease traffic congestion. There are politicians queuing up to have photos taken with Wiggins, as well as Mark Cavendish, Sir Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott, Jason Kenny, and the host of others who have made the difference between dreaming and believing.
This July we saw a team race around a hexagon chasing the yellow jersey. It’s considered the ultimate prize but Team Sky picked up many other victories along the way – including new fans. Say what you want about the nature of the race: declare defence then destruction in the time trials boring if you like but consider all the elements. Reflect on the race as a whole and recognise that, in the final days Sky won a hat-trick of stages, before sealing victory of the general classification. It had the best rider in the race as well as the runner-up. If you want entertainment, you get it at the Tour de France.
– By Rob Arnold
* * * * *
RIDE Media publishes both the Official Tour de France Guide (Australian Edition) as well as RIDE Cycling Review, a quarterly magazine all about cycling.
RIDE Cycling Review is now available in a digital format via Zinio.