LONDON (VN) – It’s close to last call at the Calthorpe Arms, a pub in central London’s Bloomsbury district, and someone pipes up, “Did you catch the Tour today?”
A spirited conversation soon commences, with patrons and the owner offering up their opinions on tactics, rivals and Bradley Wiggins’ chances of riding yellow all the way to Paris.
Wiggins is not only set to make history as the first British winner of the French race’s century-long history, but the Tour itself has become barroom fodder all across bustling London.
“It’s hard to understand how big this is for Britain and British cycling,” said Team Sky sport director Sean Yates.
“Back when I started racing, people thought we were all a bit nuts, really. Now it’s a mainstream sport and people love to ride their bikes. It’s all coming together, with Bradley, Cav’ in the rainbow jersey, the Olympics, Team Sky, the track, all of it.”
Forget football and the latest off-field trouble involving Wayne Rooney; it’s Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and the Tour de France that’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue across the English Channel.
London seems enamored with the bicycle. Like many urban cities across the globe, increased traffic and expensive public transport have pushed people back onto their bikes.
A decade ago, bikes were rare in central London. Today, mini-pelotons of bikes swarm the city streets as people use their bikes to head to work.
A “city bikes” program introduced in 2010 provides hundreds of docking stations around the city where 8,000 bikes (dubbed “Boris bikes” after London’s progressive mayor Boris Johnson) are available for short-term rentals. Anything less than 30 minutes is free.
As Yates said, it’s not just Wiggins and the Sky team’s Tour success that are capturing the attention of fans and media.
There’s also the reigning world champion Cavendish, who will line up next weekend as the five-star favorite to win the gold medal in the opening day of the Olympics.
The already-successful track program will also hog a fair share of the spotlight during the Olympics, with confirmed stars like Victoria Pendleton and Chris Hoy looking to bolster their sky-high public profiles.
Team Sky, backed by the British broadcaster, has helped push the sport from the fringe into the mainstream.
Things should hit a crescendo this week with Wiggins poised to be crowned the winner of the 99th Tour and the 2012 Olympic Games set to start Saturday.
“It’s been building over the past several years,” said Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford, who took over the British national team in 2003.
“We had a plan with the Olympic team and then we carried that over to the road. When we said we wanted to win the Tour with a British rider on a British team, a lot of people scoffed at that idea. We are proving it’s possible. And we hope the impact at home will be felt.”
In a way, the UK scene is experiencing a boom similar to the one that hit the United States when Lance Armstrong started to rocket into the media landscape a decade ago.
Armstrong’s seven consecutive Tour wins, now clouded by doping accusations, helped transform cycling into “the new golf.”
There’s a similar effect ongoing right now in the UK, where both racing and commuting has taken off over the past 10 years.
“This is just huge for British cycling,” said ex-Olympian Chris Boardman, now a TV commentator. “With Wiggins poised to win the Tour and the Olympics about to begin, cycling is really going to be right in the spotlight.”
Boardman became England’s first major cycling star, winning Britain’s first cycling gold in 72 years when he won the individual pursuit in Barcelona.
Since then, things have steadily pushed toward Wiggins’ historic victory.
The looming Olympics, set to start Saturday with men’s road race, will also give cycling a further boost.
Cavendish leads an all-star squad for the road race while Wiggins and Tour runner-up Chris Froome will race the time trial. On the women’s side, defending Olympic champion Nicole Cooke and Emma Pooley give the UK a strong chance for medals.
The road races are meant to show off London as well as the sport. A challenging course features climbs over the short but steep Box Hill southeast of London while the finale swoops past Buckingham Palace before the mad dash down The Mall at St. James Park.
“The road race is one of the marquee events of the Olympics,” said Simon Lillistone, director of cycling for London 2012. “We wanted to make a course that was interesting for the cyclists but also captured some of the highlights of London. It’s going to be big, on the first day of competition.”
Beyond the road, others are poised to step up to try to elbow into some of Wiggins’ media glare.
Shanaze Reade, who clipped Anne-Caroline Chausson’s rear wheel trying to pass on the final corner in Beijing to miss out on a medal, is poised to become a breakout star if she can strike gold this year in BMX.
Hoy and Pendleton, who both parlayed gold medals in Beijing into high profiles back home, will be looking to end their Olympic careers on home boards with at least one gold medal each.
If February’s test event is any indication at the London Velodrome, with its boards made of wood flown in from Siberia, the capacity crowds should create a rowdy, yet partisan scene for the battle of the boards.
Wiggins, likely Tour runner-up Chris Froome and Cavendish will receive a heroes’ welcome when they cross the English Channel.
Wiggins is set to fly back to England on Sunday night and head straight to an “Olympic holding camp,” most likely in Wales, where the UK track team is holed up before the Games.
Despite the Olympics and even Cavendish’s world title, which helped him earn BBC “Sportsman of the Year” honors in 2001, there’s no doubt that Wiggins’ Tour victory will put him in a class of his own.
Although he’s a winner of several Olympic medals, Wiggins is still largely unknown beyond the cycling circles.
But as Britain’s first winner of the Tour, a race dominated by the Europeans and lately by a wave of Anglo-Saxon invaders, that’s sure to change. A wave of public adulation and media attention has been building over the past three weeks as the Tour pushed toward Paris.
With his growing public profile, Wiggins might not be able to walk down the street unrecognized anymore. But at least when he walks into a pub, they will certainly buy him a pint.