The Tour of Britain is upon us, and for Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky it's their last best chance to redeem something from a season that's been high on promise but low on delivery. So, in a brave (but ultimately foolhardy) attempt to understand what makes Wiggins tick, it's time to tackle his autobiography, In Pursuit Of Glory, in which we learn that the Tour of Britain is actually just a glorified piss-up, why fucked-up families make the best cyclists, how a four month drinking binge can make a man of you and why Wiggins has a man-crush on Fabian Cancellara.
Title: In Pursuit Of Glory
Author: Bradley Wiggins (with Brendan Gallagher)
Year: 2008 (updated 2009)
What it is: The autobiography of Britain's Olympic pursuiter, Bradley Wiggins.
Strengths: If you're a trackie at heart, you'll probably enjoy it.
Weaknesses: Cliché riddled and leans too heavily toward Wiggins' Olympic pursuits.
Rating: *** (3 out of 5)
"William Campbell had been in a pursuit race with a burlesque show ever since Pittsburgh. In a pursuit race, in bicycle racing, riders start at equal intervals to ride after one another. They ride very fast because the race is usually limited to a short distance and if they slow their riding another rider who maintains his pace will make up the space that separates them equally at the start. As soon as a rider is caught and passed he is out of the race and must get down from his bicycle and leave the track. If none of the riders are caught the winner of the race is the one who has gained the most distance. In most pursuit races, if there are only two riders, one of the riders is caught inside of six miles. The burlesque show caught up with William Campbell at Kansas City."
Something that's often forgotten about Fausto Coppi is that, as well as being a two-time Tour de France champion, the winner of five Giri d'Italia, the first man to do the Tour/Giro double, one-time holder of the Hour record, winner of more Classics than I care to list and eternal foil to Gino Bartali, Coppi was a formidable pursuit rider on the track. He was Italian National Pursuit Champion five times. In Fallen Angel, William Fotheringham points out that, between 1940 and 1942, Coppi rode twenty pursuit races around Europe, and was unbeaten in all twenty of them. So there's at least one historical precedent for a pursuit champ becoming a top-class roadie.
Bradley Wiggins doesn't have to rely just on historical precedent. He's got a genetic endowment. Like Peter Stetina, Nicolas Roche, Daniel Martin, Taylor Phinney, the Schleck brothers and I don't know who else in the current peloton, Wiggins has dynastic succession on his side, being the son of a top-class cyclist. In this case, Garry Wiggins, a trackie from the eighties, who came up from Oz and made it big on the British and European track scene. Big enough to be part of the Blue Train, a loose alliance of elite riders at each track meet, which took it's name from a luxury express from Paris to the Med and took the responsibility of deciding who could and who couldn't win what.
The Six Day circuit has never been easy. For sure, it's never been as hard as it was in the beginning, when riders were on track twenty-four hours a day, for all six days of the meet. But being easier doesn't mean easy. In the eighties, Garry Wiggins once rode forty-two out of forty-three days. That involved matinee performances - three hours in the afternoon - as well as the main evening show, which could start at eight in the evening and not end until three or four in the morning. So it should come as no surprise to know that Garry Wiggins rode on amphetamines. Despite what Wiggins' fellow Olympian Chris Hoy would have the world believe, trackies can be druggies too and doping is not just a roadie vice.
Apart from his DNA, Garry Wiggins didn't give his son an awful lot. Within two years of his child's birth he walked away from wife and son and for the next seventeen years played no role in the life of either. But maybe that in itself was a role of a kind. In cycling, the fucked-up family today is what the family farm used to be: something to be escaped from. Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Raymond Poulidor, Sean Kelly, Miguel Induráin: farmers' sons. Allan Peiper, Jan Ullrich, Lance Armstrong: fucked-up families. And the Wiggins family was fucked-up even before Garry became an absent father. As well as the amphetamines, Garry liked a drink. And he was a bit too comfortable using his fists to end an argument. On and off the track. Even when he was arguing with his wife.
So with the father absent from the scene where did the young Wiggins pick up the cycling bug? The current, official version says that, in 1992, Wiggins fell in love with cycling when his mother called him in from playing in the street and told him there was something on TV he needed to watch: "I reluctantly trooped off but soon shelved all thoughts about football as I sat in front of the TV and watched Chris Boardman getting ready to tackle Jens Lehmann from Germany in the final of the four kilometre pursuit at the Barcelona Olympics. Mum was talking away - ‘This was one of the events your father was very good at, it's the Blue Riband event of track cycling, it's the race that all the best riders like to win' - so I sat down and was transfixed."
Ah. Love is. A boy and his bike. But it wasn't the bike. It wasn't just Boardman. It was Linford Christie. Sally Gunnell. Redgrave and Pinsent. Wiggins was a child of Thatcher. Patriotism rocked: "It wasn't just cycling I had fallen in love with, it was the Olympics itself and the sheer glory and achievement of trying to win medals for Britain. [...] This was what I wanted to do. Ride a bike and win medals for Britain."
And win medals he did. We're all familiar with the score. Bronze in Sydney, in the Team Pursuit. Gold, Silver and Bronze in Athens, in the Individual Pursuit, the Team Pursuit and the Madison. Double Gold in Beijing, in the Individual Pursuit and the Team Pursuit. The stuff that dreams are made of.
But there was a problem. It came post Athens. Actually it was multiple problems all coming together at the same time. There was his partner, Cath, announcing her pregnancy. There he was: Olympian; twenty-four years old; mortgaged; engaged to be married; and about to become a father. Of his own birth, he notes that: "I definitely wasn't part of the master plan [...] Garry was now hell-bent on becoming one of the greatest, and wealthiest, track riders in the world; and, frankly, starting a second family was bloody inconvenient and bad timing, to say the least." Was Wiggins really his father's son? Could he do to Cath what Garry did to Linda? Do to his child-to-be what Garry did to him?
On top of that there was a post-Athens reality check. Instead of a royalty cheque: "I had always assumed that the Olympics would change my life and that, along with the party and dinner invites, there would be copper-bottomed commercial offers, endorsements, opportunities to earn real cash and secure my family's future. They just didn't come."
Wiggins actually has a point on this one, I think. The Brits invest so much emotion in Olympic glory. The media lionises Olympic heroes. The Queen gives ‘em baubles to go with their bangles. An OBE for a Gold. An MBE for a Silver. They get invited all around the BBC network. Sky, ITV and the commercial radio stations follow suit. The newspapers love them. Then the football season kicks off proper and life goes back to normal: "If I was such a big ‘celebrity' that I was required every week to present prizes and make presentations, and dine with captains of industry, I somehow assumed this would translate into concrete earnings, Wrong. It has only been in the last couple of years, since my road career took off, that our situation has become very comfortable."
So there he was, post-Athens. About to get married. About to become a father. And feeling undervalued. There's only one displacement therapy for situations like that: drinking.
Just how much of a drinking problem did Wiggins develop? "Eleven am on the dot I would be outside the front door of my local in Chapel, waiting impatiently for the landlord to open up. I wouldn't move for the next seven hours as I steadily sipped my way through twelve or thirteen pints." Sometimes, back home with the missus, they'd share a couple of bottles of wine to wind down the day. And, when she was gone to bed, there was always the cellar of Belgian beer writing to be worked through.
Even what little cycling he was doing in this time was part of the piss-up. Take the Tour of Britain: "It quickly developed into a gloriously liquid nationwide lap of honour, I was introduced and feted wherever I went - and I am as prone to enjoying a little flattery as the next man - while all the racing was great fun against many old mates. We went hard all day on the road and then gave it another thrashing most nights as well."
Unsurprisingly, this very liquid state of affairs came to a close when Wiggins went from being an about-to-be-father to actually being a father. He'd had his gap year. Time to man-up and get back to the bike. And that meant Crédit Agricole. A team Wiggins despised.
Let's step back a bit, four years, to the beginnings of Wiggins' road career. 2001. The Linda McCartney Pro Cycling Team. You thought that one ended badly? Here's his first day on the job, in Toulouse, where the team was based: "Waiting for me there was Julian Clark, the only time I met him in person, and he put me up in his family's place that night before taking me to the apartment where I would be based. It was a bit of a hole. He gave me some team kit. I unpacked my stuff and that was it. Officially, I was a professional road racer in Europe. It was totally underwhelming and a massive anti-climax after Sydney."
The following year, it was Nantes and Française des Jeux: "As usual, there was the somewhat haphazard arrangement of meeting a team official at a designated petrol station miles from anywhere at a given time to hand over the key to my apartment - a rather grand term for what turned into a prison cell in a poor part of town - and to give me my team gear and a bike."
Part of Wiggins problem here is that he was coming to the bottom rung of the pro ladder from the relative comfort of Team GB: "I was taking home £700 a month after tax, and of course I had my monthly rent and living expenses to pay out of that. I had been much better off as a member of the GB elite training squad." Soon enough, Wiggins was pissed off with life in France and life in Française des Jeux and was operating out of the comfort and safety of Manchester, where he was living with his new girlfriend, Cath. Someone remind me, but how many Brits have made it on the Continent by commuting from home?
Two years after joining Française des Jeux he joined Crédit Agricole, "to whom I took an instant dislike." You think I'm making this shit up, don't you? I wish I was. This is 2004 by now, Olympic year. Accordingly, Wiggins hardly donned his Crédit Agricole jersey all year. And he was still commuting, though had now moved to the Girona of the Peak District that is Chapel-Le-Frith, Derbyshire ("as soon as we moved in, we realised we didn't really like the place or the house and didn't feel at home.").
After two bitter and twisted years with Crédit Agricole (made more bitter by Wiggins ‘only' getting a 50% pay rise after Athens, when he thought he was worth 500%), he moved on to Cofidis: "who, despite my distinctly average year in the saddle, were keen to sign me for well over double what Crédit Agricole were paying their Olympic pursuit champion. In short, they believed in me." But did Wiggins believe in himself?
Looking back on the first five years of his road career, it's hard to see any evidence that he believed he could ever be a good roadie. Why would he though? Wasn't the dream all about being an Olympian, about emulating Boardman and Christie and Gunnell and Redgrave and Pinsent? Saluting the Union Jack as it was run up the flag pole and belting out God Save The Queen, hand on heart and tear in eye?
Err .... well ... not quite. For you see it wasn't the Barcelona Olympics that first fired the fuse inside the young Wiggins. It was really the Tour de France: "The race, in fact, provided my first sporting memory because I distinctly remember sitting at home watching some of the duels between Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon in the dramatic 1989 Tour, which Greg won by the ridiculously small margin of eight seconds." So how to explain the lack of road ambition?
Well there was road ambition. Pre Sydney. Back then the plan was "to move seamlessly on after Sydney and pursue glory for the next decade on the road, and in particular in the Tour de France." But Sydney was a blessing and a curse. Success, but insufficient success: "I was deluding myself to think a bronze medal was enough to satisfy me. [...] What I really wanted from life was an Olympic gold medal around my neck. And, if possible, more than one." So the road simply became part of the path toward the Olympic dream.
It's only at the end of the original book - the Olympic dream realised and a new life with Garmin (and the chance to ride with his new BFF, Dave Millar), ahead of him - that he offers any real road ambition beyond life in the autobus and leading out his team's sprinter: he wants to be Fabian Cancellara. "One of my all-time favourite riders is Fabian Cancellara. I love the way he sometimes gets in a break and then takes off with, say three kilometres to go, and uses his time-trialling ability to jump ahead of the sprinters and kill off their finish. Fabian is a one-off, but there is no reason why I shouldn't try that occasionally. If my legs are good and our GC rider is safely looked after, I should be able to give anybody a run for their money from three-four kilometres out."
He should. But then came 2009. What really happened? First of all there's the weight. According to Wiggins, "you ride on the track at a weight consistently above that which you would naturally be on the road." So he needed to shed eleven or twelve pounds. Which he did, easily enough. Then there's the racing programme: "I was allowed by my team [Garmin] to branch out and really discover what I am good at, apart from prologues." And what did he discover? "To the surprise of many we discovered that I was actually a GC rider all the time. Better late than never, I suppose! Actually, it's perfect time. I'm twenty-nine and Tour riders traditionally hit their peak between twenty-nine and thirty-three, so it's not too late to work towards the ultimate - winning the Tour itself."
Doable? Riis was what, thirty-two? Sastre was ... thirty-three? And Zoetemelk was thirty-four, no? But how much of a fluke was 2009? The 2010 chapter is yet to be written, if it's going to be written at all, but we all know how it turned out. What does that piss-poor performance mean for Wiggins? Does he still see himself as a GC contender? Or is he back to wanting to be Spartacus? Or even just getting around in the autobus and leading out his sprinter? Or, with London 2012 calling ever louder, is he already thinking about what it'll take to add to his haul of Olympic bangles and baubles and digging out his track kit? Who knows. If you read In Pursuit Of Glory you might even wonder if he himself knows.