While Alberto Contador was being grilled by a 250-strong media throng at the Novotel Limoges on Monday afternoon, a small group of six reporters sat around a table with Brad Wiggins at the Campanile hotel barely 500 meters away. And that’s how the lean, long Brit likes it: no pressure, having fun. You wouldn’t know he’s in fifth overall, the closest challenger to Contador’s (and Lance Armstrong’s) Astana team, and sitting only seven seconds behind fourth-placed Levi Leipheimer.
Wiggins, the three-time Olympic track gold medalist, said this about his current high position at the 96th Tour de France. “It is satisfying,” he told the journalists. “I’m just trying to enjoy it. Just take it day by day.
“The good thing is that I’m not expected to do anything. Well, I wasn’t at the start of the race, but I know a lot of people (in Britain) expect something now. But I think I can just blow off that really … and play around with my form a little bit. And do things that I might not have done had I prepared all year for (the Tour).”
Wiggins is the biggest surprise of this year’s Tour; but those who have followed his career are not quite as surprised as the others. The 29-year-old Brit, who grew up in London and went to “dodgy” schools, is the son of the late Aussie six-day racer Gary Wiggins. So it was normal for him to gravitate to track racing.
He first showed his talent on a world stage at the 1997 world junior track championships in Havana, Cuba, where he won the gold medal in the 3000-meter individual pursuit. He became part of Britain’s now omnipotent national track squad, and took silver in the team pursuit in 2000.
He was still an amateur when I interviewed Wiggins in his local Hampstead pub in north London at Christmastime that year. I was impressed enough by his laid-back style and his plans for his upcoming professional career that I wrote he had the same ambitious attitude and natural talent I’d seen in Tom Simpson back in the 1960s. Simpson was the first Brit to wear the Tour’s yellow jersey and it was a tragedy that he was a victim of the time’s virtually non-existent doping regulations when he died on the broiling slopes of Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour.
On Monday, Wiggins evoked Simpson’s name when he was asked how he felt about being Britain’s best Tour de France hope for many years — probably the best since Robert Millar in the 1980s, and Simpson two decades before that.
Comparisons with Simpson the cyclist are not out of place. Like Wiggins, Simpson was a brilliant track pursuit racer before he turned to road racing on the Continent. They have similar skinny builds (Wiggins, at 6-foot-3, is an inch taller) … and even similar noses. Wiggins revealed Monday that over the past year he has gradually brought down his weight from 180 to 160 pounds through judicious eating and giving up sugar in his diet. “Riding the Giro (d’Italia) also made a difference,” he said.
The 20-pound weight loss (equivalent to the loss by the much shorter Armstrong pre- and post-cancer) has enabled Wiggins to climb better and still use the great power he has shown over the past decade on velodromes all over the world. But people forget that his first pro road race victory (as opposed to road time trials, of which he has won many) came in a mountain stage of the 2005 Tour de l’Avenir.
On the 159km stage 8 at Aurillac (not too far from Limoges), he broke away on the climbs with his then Crédit Agricole teammate Saul Raisin, and they ended the stage more than three minutes ahead of the prestigious event’s strongest riders. He was much heavier then, and it hasn’t been until this past week that he has shown his true potential as a stage race rider.
Typical of Wiggins’s below-the-radar performance at the Tour was his remark Monday about the mountaintop finish at Arcalis last Friday. “I think I surprised everyone being there, so I thought I’d have a little dig with about a K to go … just because I could really. And I didn’t have to worry what the other rivals would think because I wasn’t a rival at that stage.”
But the top contenders still have a hard time taking him seriously. “I was shouting on one of the climbs the other day,” he added, “just messing around trying to chill everyone out. Levi was going nuts at me: ‘What the hell’s the matter with you? Are you crazy?’
“You know, a little bit. And he was asking Dave Zabriskie that night, ‘What was Wiggins’s problem. He just started shouting on the edge of this climb.’ But everyone was so stressed and that, and you just think that sometimes they should relax a little bit. I know a lot’s at stake but I could have a lot of fun on the way.”
No stress and lots of fun. Perhaps that’s the best policy for a Tour de France contender. Well, at least for the Garmin-Slipstream revelation, it’s starting to pay big dividends.
Follow John’s twitter at twitter.com/johnwilcockson. His latest book, “Lance: The Making of the World’s Greatest Champion,” is available at www.velogear.com.