Commentary: Wiggins, Thomas take separate paths through mainstream spotlight
How often do Tour de France winners join A-list celebrities on talk show sofas? During his heyday, Lance Armstrong was a regular of course, relaxed and assured in his preferred dark jacket and powder blue shirt combo, before that talk show of talk shows, when he sat down and had a long chat with Oprah.
In Britain meanwhile, it feels like there’s been a revolving door of Tour winners on TV. From Bradley Wiggins to Geraint Thomas — whose appearance was just last week — both have sat on the Graham Norton show’s prestigious prime-time sofa, on which everyone from Tom Cruise to Jennifer Lawrence, Mark Wahlberg, Meryl Streep, and Hugh Jackman have appeared.
Oddly though, Chris Froome has never enjoyed such a high profile, despite his six grand tour wins, which probably tells you everything you need to know about the coolness of Froome’s relationship with the ‘old country.’
Both Wiggins and Thomas have books out at the moment: the 2012 Tour winner’s coffee table book “Icons” and Thomas’s glory, glory tome, “The Tour According To G: My Journey to the Yellow Jersey.”
Both have been treading the boards on promotional tours. Talk to those on the road with the Welshman and the feedback is all about his easy, self-deprecating charm, good manners and willingness to please his fans.
Over on Wiggins’s “Icons” tour, for a book which includes that now infamous lauding of Lance, the vibe was a little bit different. The Independent newspaper described spending an evening with Wiggins as “emotional and funny” but also betraying “a deep dislike for everyone and everything.”
Other reviews for the Wiggins show were also, as they say, mixed. There was supposedly a lot of listening to Wiggins moan and moan — and moan again — about how terrible life has been for him, and how a succession of “arsewipes,” as he called them, had plagued his progress.
You might have thought that, with all those Olympic and world medals, the Tour de France title, the stage race wins and the hour record, the home in Mallorca, those fabulous suits, the books and clothing lines, all achieved before the age of 40, that Wiggins might be finally, realizing what a gilded career he’d had.
But no. Maybe they should have called the “Evening With Bradley Wiggins” tour something like “Settling Scores,” given how many grudges he seems to bear. Is there anyone he likes, respects, grudgingly admires even? Ah yes: Lance.
Wiggins seemed to have had plenty to unload every night during the shows. There were “chuck all the medals in the bin, they’re all worthless” moments, the lambasting of former associates, the inevitable, Trump-like gripes about the media and moments of “screw the world” boozing.
Wiggins took aim at everyone from Dave Brailsford, who might, given his part in his career, feel a little aggrieved, to the much-reviled tabloid, the Daily Mail, which led the way on the Jiffy bag investigation.
Brailsford and Wiggins were once very close. It’s worth remembering that Wiggins wasn’t slagging off Brailsford when he won Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie, the Dauphiné and the Tour de France in 2012. In fact, after Wiggins won the Tour of Romandie, by hanging on to his race lead in the time trial to Crans Montana, he and Brailsford fell to the tarmac and hugged like father and son.
Nor was Wiggins angry in the summer of 2012 when the Mail’s sports pages suggested that, “Wiggins is the greatest sportsman this country has produced …” and labeled him “Britain’s greatest Olympian.”
“The greatest?” the Mail said of Wiggins’s astonishing 2012 season. “Increasingly, the tag is irresistible.”
But then that was all before the Fancy Bears targeted Wiggins’s questionable use of TUEs — and make no mistake, as members of the British parliament’s DCMS select committee knew — the Russian hackers did target Wiggins, in a concerted effort to discredit him.
Even so, the depth of Wiggins’s bitterness has surprised even those who knew he’d been left scarred by the infamous Jiffygate affair, and there’s no doubt that while the star of 2012 retains a “warts and all” popularity among hardcore bike geeks, his profile has fallen among general sports fans.
In the industry, Wiggins’s standing is also precarious. It’s an open secret that he can be “difficult,” and that he has long benefited from a “Brad’s just being Brad” pass, which lasted as long as the talent was big enough to obscure the tantrums.
Brailsford and the Daily Mail now join a long list of former associates — journalists, teammates, collaborators, and confidantes — that have all been treated like unwanted Christmas presents.
Thomas, by contrast, is enjoying a golden period. Leadership anxieties at Team Sky will be eased by his popularity at home and by his status as clear favorite for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year title, which is decided by a public vote in mid-December. Success would also intensify pressure for him to assume Team Sky leadership next July.
Wiggins meanwhile will watch from a distance. Having been once ensconced inside the tent — he even sat on a throne after winning the 2012 time trial gold medal in Hampton Court Palace — it seems he is now outside, pissing in.
Jeremy Whittle is the author of “Bad Blood: the secret life of the Tour de France,” and “Ventoux: Sacrifice and suffering on the Giant of Provence.” He covers the Tour de France for The Guardian.