From the pages of Velo: Pursuing Bradley
Editor’s Note: The following story appeared in the February 2009 issue of VeloNews. Bradley Wiggins finds himself in the driver’s seat after the Tour’s first time trial. Neal Rogers found him somewhere else entirely in late 2008.
You know the name, Bradley Wiggins, and his impressive track honors — three Olympic gold medals and multiple world titles. And you may know something about his 2008 roller-coaster season: the unexpected and violent death of his estranged father; candid admissions of alcoholism in his autobiography, “In Pursuit of Glory”; a public fallout with Madison partner Mark Cavendish after their botched Olympic performance; and a switch from Team Columbia to Garmin-Slipstream for 2009.
But what do you know about the man himself, the 28-year-old Londoner with the Mod haircut who joins America’s newest UCI ProTour squad as yet another arrow in its quiver of time trial specialists?
For starters, the long and lanky man known as “Wiggo” is calm and composed, yet always up for a laugh. At Garmin’s November team camp, his exploits included a naked sprint around a brewpub’s parking lot, a guitar lead during a team dinner performance of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and cartoonish impersonations of his new teammates’ American and Canadian accents.
Another defining facet of Wiggins’ personality is his penchant to tell it like it is. Whether discussing his personal successes or character flaws, his devotion to his wife and children, or the death of his father, Wiggins speaks his mind.
Example: Asked if he agreed that, after becoming the only man to successfully defend an Olympic pursuit title, he was, as Lance Armstrong put it, “the best f—ing pursuiter of all time,” Wiggins paused. “I don’t know, I’ve done what I’ve done,” he said. “It’s not really for me to decide that. That’s for other people to decide.”
Prodded to shed light on which pursuit rivals might cause him anxiety, he answered, “No one, really. In the early days, my biggest inspiration was [Australian] Bradley McGee. He was the one who inspired me to push harder and take it to another level. Once I conquered him, there was no looking back. The biggest challenge was always myself.”
Wiggins is not the biggest cycling star in the United Kingdom. That title belongs to Scottish track sprinter and triple-Olympic gold medalist Chris Hoy. But with his rock-star persona — from his Paul Weller haircut, to his collection of vintage guitars and scooters, and his tattoos, including the names of his two children, Ben and Isabella, across his heart — Wiggins is probably Britain’s most recognized cyclist.
“I think a lot of my popularity in the UK is because people see me differently,” Wiggins said. “I’m not a clean-cut athlete. Most of our Olympic athletes are sort of one-dimensional; all they’ve got in their lives is sport. I wouldn’t say I’m a rock star, but maybe I’m known a bit more for not being everything about cycling. I go to music gigs, or I get into magazines for having my photo taken backstage with Oasis.”
In an interview with The Sunday Times of London, Irish pro racer-turned-sportswriter Paul Kimmage asked Wiggins if he would describe himself as complex.
“I think in a lot of areas in my life I am extremely easygoing and a good laugh, none more so than when I have a drink,” Wiggins told Kimmage. “But in other areas I am quite an individual. I enjoy my own company. I think it’s part of the reason I excel at individual pursuiting. And I’ve got some complex things in my life that I am quite obsessive about, and I guess that goes into making me a complex person.”
That obsessive personality, he told VeloNews, encompasses everything in his life.
“My family, music, guitars, things like that,” he said. “I’m just as obsessive about playing my guitar as I am about my training. Whether I’m training, preparing for something, it’s all or nothing. Equally, when it’s over, it’s kind of completely the other way. When the big objective is over, it’s downtime.”
At Garmin’s November camp, Wiggins was clearly enjoying his downtime, relishing in the chance to join a new cast of characters including compatriot David Millar.
“It’s just so relaxed with this team,” he said. “There are so many characters, guys like Dave Zabriskie and David Millar, and some of the younger guys. On the French teams you have to be a certain person, otherwise you get the piss taken out of you and you get ostracized. Here, everyone can be themselves.”
Wiggins was born in Ghent, Belgium, the son of Gary Wiggins, an Australian professional cyclist, and Linda, his British mother. He was two years old when his father, a six-day rider known to drink, left his mother for another woman. Linda returned to London, moving into public housing, a mile or so from the historic center. His father eventually returned, alone, to Australia and settled on the island of Tasmania.
Wiggins’ inspiration to become a pro cyclist came not from his father, but from watching Chris Boardman bring Britain pursuit gold at the 1992 Barcelona Games. The teenaged Wiggins spent his afternoons riding on the closed roads of London’s Hyde Park, and by the time he was 18, he’d won the world junior individual pursuit title. That fame brought a call from his estranged father.
“We started talking about bike racing and he seemed really pleasant,” Wiggins told The Sunday Times. “He said he was sorry for what he did. I said, ‘Okay, that’s fine. I don’t know what you were going through at that stage but it’s done now.’ He was really interested in my bike racing so I rang him again and it just went from there. I knew it was never going to be father/son-like… And I felt he got a great deal of pleasure from speaking to me.”
Wiggins left London for Manchester, home of British Cycling and the country’s primary indoor velodrome. In 2000, he shared in the team pursuit bronze at the Sydney Olympics, and the following year he embarked on a professional road career with the British Linda McCartney squad, which imploded during the 2001 season. For 2002 Wiggins joined Française des Jeux, the first of three consecutive French teams he would ride for.
A world pursuit title in 2003 brought him international attention, but it was the 2004 season, his first on a two-year stint at Crédit Agricole, that launched Wiggins into orbit — and nearly brought him down in a tailspin.
It was during that Olympic year that Wiggins began writing an articulate column in The Observer, gaining a new degree of fame in the UK just as Millar, Britain’s biggest cycling star and also a time trial specialist, was suspended for two years for admitting to EPO use. Millar’s admission came as a disappointment to the then 24-year-old Wiggins.
“A lot was made of our relationship, Dave and I; people tried to put us up against each other,” Wiggins said. “But behind the scenes, we’ve always gotten on quite well. When it happened to Dave, it was quite a big shock, really, because I never thought he was doing that sort of stuff. I kind of looked up to him as well.”
It was also during that pivotal 2004 season that Wiggins met his wife Catharine, the daughter of British Cycling’s national facilities officer Dave Cockram. Within weeks he proposed.
At the 2004 Olympics Wiggins blitzed McGee by more than four seconds to win pursuit gold. He also left Athens with a silver medal in the team pursuit and a bronze in the Madison, making him the first Brit to win three Olympic medals at a single Olympics in 40 years. His efforts did not go unrecognized, and led to him being named a distinguished Officer of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II.
However in the months that followed, Wiggins descended into depression. He went on a nine-month bender, drinking up to a dozen pints of beer a day.
“Having achieved something I’d set out to achieve my whole life, not really knowing what to do next…” Wiggins said, stopping mid sentence. “It was quite a sad time in my life, really. Nothing really changed after winning the Olympics. Initially there were a lot of parties to go to, but once all that died down, I still found myself sitting there at four in the morning, on my own at home, drinking. My drinking escalated into combating depression. That was not right.”
Part of the problem, Wiggins said, was his unhappiness at Crédit Agricole. “They had ambitions for me that perhaps didn’t meet my own ambitions,” he said. “I was a bit lost for a year, really.”
Asked earlier this year by The Guardian’s Donald McRae if he worried about following in his father’s foot-steps towards alcoholism, Wiggins said, “Deep down I knew I wasn’t like him. I never got to that point where I lost my self-respect and stopped caring about other people. I was just waiting for something to spark me again.”
The change — the spark — Wiggins said, came about when Catherine gave birth to their son Ben in the spring of 2005. “It gave me a different outlook on life, and I started enjoying riding the bike again for the right reasons,” he said. “I never looked back from there.”
A Tale of Two Tours
By the end of the 2005 season, Wiggins had signed a contract with Cofidis, with an agreement that he would start the 2006 Tour de France, his first, to get a feel for the world’s biggest race, which would start the following year with a prologue in his hometown of London.
But Wiggins’ first two Tour experiences were filled with mixed emotions. The 2006 Tour began with the expulsions of GC favorites Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich, due to their involvement with Operación Puerto, and ended with winner Floyd Landis testing positive for testosterone. In between those scandals, Wiggins placed 16th in the Strasbourg prologue and finished the race in 124th place.
“It’s hard to know where I am at the end of this Tour,” Wiggins wrote in his Observer column. “I’ve ridden the Tour, which was another childhood dream, like winning an Olympic gold medal, and at the moment it feels like the sort of thing you do once, because it’s so bloody hard that you can’t envisage doing it another year.”
If the 2004 season was the most pivotal in Wiggins’ career, 2007 was his breakthrough season on the road. Following a pair of world pursuit titles in March, Wiggins won the opening TT at the Four Days of Dunkirk and the prologue of the Dauphiné Libére. After years of struggling to match his track performances within the pro peloton, he felt he’d arrived.
Asked to quantify the balance road and track play in his career, Wiggins told VeloNews, “I enjoy the road. I enjoy winning on the track. I don’t necessarily enjoy riding the track. I need to win on the track to enjoy it.”
With confidence from the Dauphiné stage win, Wiggins headed into the 2007 Tour believing he might take the prologue, and the yellow jersey, on the London roads where he learned to ride a bike. To prepare, Wiggins rode the prologue course at 3 a.m., “to get a real feel for the roads, without traffic, and to be able to take some of the corners at high speed.” However, on race day, he fell 23 seconds short to a perfect Fabian Cancellara, and had to settle for fourth.
A few days later Wiggins set out on a 200km solo breakaway. That he hadn’t made a conscious decision to commemorate the 40th anniversary of British rider Tom Simpson’s death came as a disappointment to British journalists hungry for an angle on Wiggins’ daylong escapade. If the ride belonged to anyone, Wiggins said, it was his wife, who was celebrating her birthday in London. “She would’ve been watching on the telly,” Wiggins said. “So it’s the only way I could spend the day with her.”
Wiggins placed an impressive fifth at the stage 13 time trial in Albi, behind Astana’s Alexander Vinokourov, upgraded to fourth when the Kazakh tested positive for blood doping. But his Tour again would end under the gray cloud of a doping scandal, and this time it was closer to home. After the rest day in Pau, Wiggins’ Cofidis teammate Cristian Moreni was arrested at the top of the Col d’Aubisque for a doping positive, and he was led away in handcuffs. French police questioned the entire Cofidis team before it was sent home from the Tour. It was a humiliating exit for Wiggins, who was so upset he tossed a suitcase of Cofidis clothing in a trashcan at the Pau airport, opting to instead wear a T-shirt borrowed from Millar.
“I didn’t want to travel in those clothes,” Wiggins said. “It was front page news the next day, and I was just so disgusted and ashamed to be wearing Cofidis clothing. I didn’t want to walk through an airport with a big Cofidis T-shirt on and have people say, ‘Oh, you’re going home, are you?’ because of doping.”
Though his contract with Cofidis extended through the 2007 season, mentally Wiggins was already out the door. He’d met with Slipstream manager Jonathan Vaughters in Pau to discuss a contract for 2008, but ultimately signed with High Road (T-Mobile at the time) because Vaughters couldn’t guarantee that his upstart squad would receive a start at the 2008 Giro d’Italia — pivotal to Wiggins’ Olympic preparations.
“I was pretty adamant I wanted to come to Slipstream, just from hearing Jonathan’s vision,” Wiggins said.
Wiggins’ new year started off with a jolt. On January 26, he received a phone call — his father had been beaten to death in a small town north of Sydney, his body found on the side of a road.
Within a few years of their reconnecting, Wiggins had realized he had little room in his life for his long-lost alcoholic father, and by the time of his passing they hadn’t spoken in ages. His aunt cleaned out the tiny, dank room where he’d lived and discovered a suitcase that contained newspaper clippings of his son’s athletic achievements.
“There were old pictures of me and my sisters, all the press cuttings from my bike riding,” Wiggins wrote in his newspaper column. “Through all the turmoil in his life, losing contact, making it again, he still looked after it all and that is a precious last memory to have of him.”
Wiggins contemplated attending the funeral, but with High Road team camp and the Amgen Tour of California weeks away, the world track championships in Manchester following and Beijing on the horizon, he decided not to make the trip to Australia.
At the world track championships in March, Manchester’s hometown hero didn’t disappoint, taking titles in the individual pursuit, the team pursuit (in world record time) and the Madison — alongside High Road teammate Cavendish. It was the best possible scenario with an attempt to repeat all three performances in Beijing just five months away.
At the Giro Wiggins rode for Cavendish, taking over duties 50km out to keep the sprinter near the front and taking over lead-out duties from 2.5km to 800m to go. “Wiggo” recovered well from the arduous final week to place fourth in the Milan time trial.
In Beijing a shorn Wiggins — he cut his trademark hair because it was too hot for training — took gold in the individual pursuit and led the British squad to a new world team pursuit record as they beat Denmark by almost seven seconds with a time of 3:53.314.
However his golden streak ended there. In the Madison, a tired Wiggins was unable to replicate the tactic that had won the Brits the rainbow jersey in Manchester — upping the pace until the other teams simply couldn’t sustain, and then attacking to lap the field. The world champions finished a disappointing ninth, and Wiggins and Cavendish left the velodrome without speaking to each other.
“It was the Olympic final, and you have to be 100 percent for Olympic finals,” Wiggins said. “We’d done the world record the night before in the team pursuit, and it was a late night with doping control, and things like that. And tactically we didn’t ride superb together. We were watched, anyway, because we were world champions.”
Wiggins downed a few beers straight after exiting the track and failed to appear at the post-race press conference — “I proceeded to get blind drunk with my wife and friends,” he told The Guardian. He later had a run-in with local police after rolling across the hood of a waiting taxi. He smoothed out the situation by posing for pictures with the driver, showcasing his gold medals.
He may have charmed his way out of the situation in Beijing, but the chasm between Wiggins and his Madison partner would prove more difficult to bridge; Cavendish was the only rider out of 14 on Great Britain’s track squad not to win a medal in the Laoshan Velodrome. The two didn’t speak for months, until Wiggins reached out with a text message in October: “Hi, do you remember me?”
“At first, after the Olympics, I was pissed at Brad,” Cavendish told The Observer. “But if he’s made to train for 4km, for sure he’s not going to be good at 50km. And [British Cycling] were all about the team pursuit. They trained so much for that that they forgot the Madison. Well, they didn’t forget the Madison; they didn’t give a shit.”
Wiggins admitted he was tired from the individual and team pursuit, adding that the Olympic format didn’t allow a day of rest before the Madison as the world championship format did.
“The Olympics sort of ended in a shade of disappointment, not getting that third gold medal,” Wiggins said. “Mark was bitterly disappointed. I was equally disappointed. A lot was made of it. It wasn’t a big fallout.”
Within two months of returning from Beijing, Wiggins’ book was published, a cathartic invitation into his personal story, warts and all. At the same time, word leaked out that he was joining Garmin for 2009. Britain’s two biggest time trial stars, Wiggins and Millar, would finally ride for the same squad.
“I’ve always had a view to maybe come to this team and race with Dave, and he was keen to have me here,” Wiggins said.
Looking back on a year that began with the death of his father and ended with Olympic gold and a new team, Wiggins said it was all a bit of a blur. If anything, he said, his father’s death reminded him of his commitment to his own wife and children.
“I’ve had the opportunity to start my own family, to do things right,” he said. “It’s the biggest challenge of them all. It’s tough being on the road, away from them so much. But this sport, if you’re successful, can be so rewarding in so many ways, not just financially, but in terms of your respectability as a person. Just being able to, when my kids are old enough, to give them my six Olympic medals and let them cherish them for the rest of their lives; it’s the things like that that I look forward to most. Not many people get to live this kind of lifestyle, so you need to value every minute of it. It doesn’t really get much better than this.”