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Icons, by Bradley Wiggins

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Title: Icons – My Inspiration. My Motivation. My Obsession.
Author: Bradley Wiggins (with Herbie Sykes, foreword by Eddy Merckx)
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year: 2018
Pages: 320
Order: HarperCollins
What it is: Bradley Wiggins showing off a part of his jersey collection and talking about himself and the riders who have inspired him
Strengths: It will look good on coffee tables and there is stuff in it you’re unlikely to have read before
Weaknesses: Wiggins once had a chip on his shoulder about doping, now he’s swapped that for a couple of potatoes worn as epaulettes and forever banging on about his working class War Child credentials as a kid from Kilburn, even dropping the ‘Sir’ and the ‘CBE’ from his name in an attempt to make us think of him as Wiggo from the Block

It’s been three years since the Café Bookshelf last checked in on Planet Wiggins and in that time a lot has happened in the life of the Modfather. An awful lot. More bangles and baubles were won at World Championships and Olympics. He retired. He had a truncated appearance on Channel 4’s ‘The Jump’. He had an aborted rowing career. He wrote this book. And he put together a touring rage show.

Of particular relevance to Icons, Wiggins has ditched Simon Fuller’s XIX Entertainment in favour of M&C Saatchi Merlin, ditched publishers Yellow Jersey Press in favour of HarperCollins, and ditched William Fotheringham as his ghost-writer in favour of Herbie Sykes.

These last few years, they’ve been a period of transition and image management for Wiggins. Or a period of tarnishing and mismanagement, given the cloud that’s been hanging over him since Russian hackers decided to use the TUEs of Olympic athletes as pawns in the new Cold War and since MP Damian Collins chose to use the story of the Jiffy bag to put on a piece of political theatre.

For the most part ignoring these distractions, and the tabloid notoriety they’ve brought with them, Icons sees Wiggins take the reader on a tour of part of his collection of cycling jerseys, specifically those once worn by twenty-one riders - unsurprisingly, all men - who have, in one way or another, provided inspiration and motivation to him on his journey through a career in cycling. Some come from riders who were his heroes when he was a thirteen-year-old kid in Kilburn first falling in love with the sport. Some are from riders he raced against, both domestically and internationally. Others come from some of those riders most of us can agree belong in the pantheon of cycling’s greats.

Some of the riders who inspired and motivated Wiggins
Some of the riders who inspired and motivated Wiggins

Icons, then, can been seen as a bit of image management by Saatchi, distancing Wiggins from the marginal gains found in TUEs and Jiffy bags and instead placing him alongside riders like Hugo Koblet, José Manuel Fuente, Gastone Nencini, and Felice Gimondi. The book is also, in large part, the fifth, sixth, or seventh volume of Wiggins’s autobiographies (there being some doubt over the canonical status of his Opus outing, 101, and the bowlderised version of My Time that is My Story). Karl Ove Knausgård called it quits after six volumes of partly true autobiography, Marcel Proust threw in the towel at seven, but my guess is that a decade from now the Café Bookshelf will have added yet more volumes from Wiggins, and he still won’t be done.

Bradley Wiggins on Icon # 4 – Miguel Induráin:

It’s a matter of public record that he rode during the EPO years, and yet he’s the Tour winner that nobody – journalist, judiciary, former riders – has ever gone after. They’ve gone after Riis, Ullrich, Pantani, and history tells us they’ve been going after Tour winners (myself included) since Jan Janssen in 1968. There has to be a reason why only Miguel has been left alone, and to me it’s pretty clear what that reason is. Whatever the context and whatever was happening in cycling, Induráin’s morality is bomb-proof.

In part, Icons is ploughing a furrow familiar to readers of the cycling haberdasher Paul Smith and his Cycling Scrapbook, or the various other jersey-related books that have inexplicably been being pumped out since Bill Humphreys and Jerry Dunn translated and updated Henk Theuns’s Koerstrui! in The Jersey Project (there’s been Andy Storey’s philosophically challenging The Art of the Jersey, Oliver Knight’s interesting The Cycling Jersey, and Chris Sidwells’s insipid Cycling Jerseys). Icons can also be compared to the many miscellanies that promise you the whole history of cycling in familiar tales about a few dozen riders (see, for example, the Velominati’s Hardmen). Judged on its own merits – the words within and not the name on the cover – Icons is head and shoulders above most all of these rivals. Wiggins’s passion for the sport’s history is hard to miss and he’s not fixated on the Tour and its over-familiar legends, many of his stories instead coming from the Giro and other races. This means that, unless you’ve already read books like Herbie Sykes’s The Giro 100, Icons has several stories you won’t already be familiar with.

The problem, of course, comes with the name on the cover: Wiggins. This is his story, not just history. The level of autobiographical content in the stories of his chosen icons varies: in the case of Patrick Sercu, the Belgian track star is more or less reduced to a paragraph of pub bore stats, while in the story of Hugo Koblet Wiggins barely intrudes. Overall, though, there’s quite a lot of biography, the reader served stories from throughout Wiggins’s journey from fan, to tyro trackie, Tour de France winner, and now elder statesman of the sport struggling to cope with fame.

A taste of Wiggins’s struggle with the price of glory was offered in My Hour. And a taste is still all that’s on offer, Wiggins as of yet still not quite coping with the present and instead retreating into the safety of the rose-tinted uplands of his youth, where kids from Kilburn didn’t do introspection much. Pretty much all Wiggins has to offer here on events post-2012 is more bitterness at the way the media have treated him. Here he is, for instance, talking and not talking about Gianni Bugno:

he was smart enough to recognise that the champion and the journalist are interdependent, and that the rest of the sport relies on that relationship in order to function. The journalists need copy, because that is what figuratively speaking, puts bums on seats for the sponsors.

I know all about that, and I also know what it feels like when you no longer have control over it. By and large many people just believe what they read, and when they come after you you’re essentially powerless. If you’re good at sport you get fame and fortune, but it’s swings and roundabouts. The fame is ephemeral and there’s a price to pay for it. The more famous you are the higher the price, and so it rolls on.

One of the problems with the autobiographical element is that it really only touches the surface of the story. There simply isn’t the space to go deeper, even were Wiggins willing to do so. Take this, in the José Manuel Fuente chapter, Wiggins talking about the come down from his Tour success:

Alongside supporting my kids in their adjustment to all of a sudden having to share their daddy, throw in a court case and I guess you could say I was simply emotionally overwhelmed.

What court case, you may find yourself asking. For all but the most diehard Wiggins fanboy, the case was a soon forgotten story that surfaced in January 2014, Wiggins and his former manager suing and counter-suing one and other over contractual obligations. That manager was Jonathan Marks – the man now behind Rouleur’s new fifty-quid-a-pop-plus-postage-and-packing annual, The Road Book, edited by Charlotte Atyeo – and Wiggins has even less to say about him here than he does about the court case that was so overwhelming.

Bradley Wiggins on Icon # 9 – Hugo Koblet:

Some said he experimented too much with steroids, some that he overdid it with amphetamines, some that the richer he became the less he trained. Others said it was wine, women and song, but the chances are it was all of the above and none of the above. What we know for certain is that he contracted a renal complaint. It may or may not have been the consequence of his having ‘doped’ to satisfy race organisers and sponsors, but it certainly compromised his ability at altitude.

Once upon a time Bradley Wiggins was the go-to guy for the British media when they wanted an angry sound-bite condemning the needle and the damage done. Once upon a time Bradley Wiggins was so effed off by doping that he chucked his team jersey in an airport rubbish bin “because I didn’t want any chance of being associated with doping.” And yet here he is today, curating a veritable rogues’ gallery of dopers. What happened?

Indurain, Merckx, Armstrong - three of Wiggins’s icons
Indurain, Merckx, Armstrong - three of Wiggins’s icons

Wiggins actually answered that question several years ago in a ghosted Guardian column:

“I had two kids to worry about, a livelihood to earn in the face of what was going on, and people beating me because they were doping. I had a chip on my shoulder as a result, and I wasn’t shy of saying what I thought about doping because it directly affected me and the lives of my family.”

As part of Team Sky’s radical weight loss programme for the track pursuiter, that chip was removed. With the subsequent weight loss allowing him to ride away from corpulent dopers, the need to speak out against doping went with it. Wiggins was able to return to being a wide-eyed kid from Kilburn who could imagine riders sacrificing themselves for cycling. He could return to being like a large number of cycling fans and simply not care about doping, to the point of having a highly developed blind spot for the subject.

While such a blind spot can carry most through the legends of Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil and Francesco Moser and Fausto Coppi, even the wilfully naïve cannot hide from the fact that Lance Armstrong doped, was banned for life for having doped, and had himself interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in order to admit that he had doped. And yet there he is, icon # 13, “the archetypal Tour de France cyclist, […] precisely the sort of winner Desgrange had in mind 120 years ago.” For Wiggins, what Desgrange had in mind 120 years ago is divined from a myth that only took root seventy years ago, that of the ideal Tour and its “perfect winner,” the last man standing.

This laudatory treatment of Armstrong is, according to the UCI’s boss David Lappartient, not just “unbelieveable,” but also it “isn’t acceptable.”

That Desgrange never really believed in the mythical ideal Tour is a matter of historical record: on many occasions he saved groups of riders from the cut-off knowing that one man riding alone into Paris was hardly likely to help sell more copies of L’Auto. Which, after all, was the Tour’s raison d’être. Whether Desgrange would have approved of Armstrong’s victories is debatable: on the one hand, the Texan would have helped sell more newspapers, but on the other the stranglehold his team put on the race was the sort of thing the Father of the Tour spend most of the race’s first three decades raging against.

Would Desgrange have sided with Lappartient in thinking it unacceptable to continue to celebrate Armstrong after his fall from grace? There would probably have been a cooling off period, we only have to look at his treatment of Henri Pélissier after the 1924 Tour to guess that. But equally we only have to look to the case of Maurice Garin to see that this would pass. Though banned for life for cheating en route to winning the 1904 Tour, Desgrange saw no trouble in inviting Garin to be a guest of honour at L’Auto’s Bordeaux-Paris. It’s not just the Father of the Tour who was forgiving, Desgrange’s protégé and successor Jacques Goddet had Garin as a guest of honour when the Tour turned fifty in 1953. And in 2002 Garin was among the first inductees into the UCI’s Hall of Fame.

Should Wiggins have excluded Armstrong from his selection of icons? We can’t airbrush the man from history, we can’t pretend he didn’t exist. His podcast is speeding his rehabilitation, a project already hastened by journalists like Richard Moore and Jeremy Whittle who interviewed him for recent books. What we can do, however, is consider what Wiggins had to say about another of his icons, Tom Simpson:

Prior to the Festina Affair at the 1998 Tour, cycling’s doping issue had been its dirty little secret. Doping was bad news and, right or wrongly, Tom was linked to it. As such the sport saw no particular value in celebrating him, I assume because to have done so would have appeared hypocritical. I use the word ‘appeared’ deliberately, because in reality the exact opposite was true. Tom Simpson made the ultimate sacrifice for the Tour de France, and it wasn’t his fault the sport had developed a drug problem. The real hypocrisy, as everyone now knows, lay in not celebrating him and not examining the causes of his death.

To not include Armstrong – given he was one of the childhood idols of Wiggins – would be wrong. The real hypocrisy is in not celebrating him and not examining the causes of his downfall. On the first part of this, Wiggins does right. But the second? Wiggins won’t go there. Not with Lance Armstrong. Not with Eddy Merckx (a man who blamed Simpson’s death on everything except doping). Not with Hugo Koblet. Not with Miguel Induráin. Not with Johan Museuuw. Not with any of his childhood idols does Wiggins go there.

And that’s the real problem with Icons – Wiggins and his image managers would rather we associated him with a romantic lie than the hard reality of our sport. When you’re a 13-year-old kid in Kilburn first falling in love with the sport such naivety might be appropriate. But not when you’re a 38-year-old Tour champion it isn’t.

Icons – My Inspiration. My Motivation. My Obsession., by Bradley Wiggins (with Herbie Sykes, foreword by Eddy Merckx) is published by Harper Collins
Icons – My Inspiration. My Motivation. My Obsession., by Bradley Wiggins (with Herbie Sykes, foreword by Eddy Merckx) is published by Harper Collins