Atypique. That’s the word most often used to describe Bradley Wiggins by the French media, meaning atypical, unusual and special. It’s a reference to his character, whether his London sarcasm, the fluent French or his taste for things far beyond the bubble of pro cycling. But his whole career has been unusual, making him perhaps the most unique winner of the Tour de France.
Here’s a look at his cycling career via 21 photos and a video clip.
We start with Gary Wiggins. An Australian track rider from Victoria, he made his way to Europe in the late 1970s to make a living on the boards but bounced around from team to team and contract to contract. He met Linda in London and Bradley was born in Belgium. Wiggins didn’t know his father well and he died in mysterious circumstances in 2008. Asked the other day what Gary would make of the Tour de France success, Bradley replied “it depends if he was sober or not“. But if they didn’t get on, father and son have some similarities. Bradley’s first experiences in cycling were with a London club called the Archer RC which was the same club that his father rode for too in the 1970s, almost 20 years before him. Today the club has an online photo gallery with the earliest images of Wiggins in a race.
Wiggins inherited the right DNA from both parents, he was winning early and getting special permission to ride in adult races because he was too good for his junior peers.
It wasn’t long until his name appeared on the international radar thanks a win in the pursuit at the junior world track championships and he was brought into the British track team. But things were not organised like they are today, the state-funded program did not exist. Fellow track rider Chris Hoy tells tales of having to share a skinsuit and return it to the national federation after a world championships. As a result Wiggins ended up riding six day track races over the winter for income.
Was he copying his father? Well he wasn’t alone, more British riders were making a living on the track than on the road with names like Doyle, Sturgess and Hayles. But along came Britain’s national lottery and with it, a commitment to fund sports. British cycling had seen Chris Boardman and his nemesis Graeme Obree duel on the track but things got organised. Funding was allocated to national federations according to performances on the world stage, gold medals in the Olympics translated into golden funding. National performance director Peter Keen made the obvious discovery that the velodrome was a gold mine with all sorts of medals up for grabs, compared to just four on the road for the mens and women’s road race and time trial. Better still, if many in Europe were dominating the road, the track was a relative backwater. Australia had made great gains with generous funding and Britain copied this, even poaching staff.
The image above shows Wiggins at the first crossroads of his career in 2002, it’s one of those photos that says so much. The top tube of his bike says “UK sport lottery funded” but his shorts say FDJ, the French national lottery because he’d just signed for the French team after his previous team Linda McCartney had imploded in financial scandal. But if Wiggins was a pro on the road in contractual terms, he wasn’t quite living the life.
FDJ’s manager Madiot later described Wiggins as “my very own Cancellara” but instead of being an expert in racing against the watch, he was better at wasting time. He took a flat in Nantes by a Chinese restaurant and if the town is prosperous, it’s a boring place and far from Parisian chic, Alpine scenery or Mediterranean warmth. He’d often end the day with a six-pack of beer or slope off the Irish pub, admitting to being drunk “half the time”. But he exaggerates and if he didn’t show the FDJ jersey, he was the opposite of a waster. The track was Wiggins’ focus and he collected several world champion titles but also impressed in time trials on the road and moved to Crédit Agricole for 2004.
Again Wiggins frustrated his French management with his focus on the track but they knew the deal too and he landed gold in the pursuit race in the Athens Olympics. 2004 was a quiet year on the road but a giant one on the track, not just for Wiggins but for British cycling as they began to harvest the fruits of their medal targeting. But for all the gold medals, Wiggins was still on a modest income and struggled, spending a lot of time in a pub, downing beer after beer and gave “hydration” a different spin when he rode the Tour of Britain partly fuelled by beer. His French teammates called him le hooligan.
2005 saw Wiggins hit the road and he took his first pro win in the Circuit de Lorraine, a time trial stage of course and as the picture above shows, he was riding as an equal with the likes of Christophe Moreau. He went on to ride his first grand tour, finishing 123rd in the Giro. Perhaps the most interesting result came later in the year when he won a road stage of the Tour de l’Avenir, the stage race for riders aged 25 and younger. He broke away with Crédit Agricole team mate Saul Raisin but here’s some translated excerpts of the Eurosport race report:
On a hilly route with seven climbs, the Briton proves he can also cross the mountains
Bradley Wiggins isn’t just a time triallist. He proved it winning Thursday’s 8th stage of the Tour de l’Avenir on a route with seven climbs. However the reigning world and Olympic pursuit champion doesn’t have the look of a climber. He’s proved that it’s not just against the clock where he can win.
For 2006 Wiggins moved to Cofidis and started to have a big season on the road. No results but he rode the classics like Milan-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix.
It was also Wiggins’ first Tour de France appearance. The results were unremarkable but he finished and as the image above shows he was going in the breakaways like any dutiful Cofidis rider.
Things went up a notch for 2007, he stopped becoming breakaway fodder. With Cofidis he took the lead in the Four Days of Dunkirk and then again in the Dauphiné. Note the picture of him above in the Dauphiné, first for his team mate Chavanel but also note his arms, substantially bulkier than today.
Wiggins improved further in the Tour de France. It started in London and he was roared on to fourth place in the prologue. A long solo break followed during one of the flat stages across France where it was said some teams were happy to let him fry because he was outspoken on doping, the rent-a-quote Mr Clean.
Then came the Albi time trial where he finished fifth only to find Vinokourov later disqualified for doping, so he rose to fourth. Suddenly we had a contender, he’d done two weeks of racing and could come close to the win in a time trial stage, all whilst some around him – not all – were doped to the gills.
But any joy from the 2007 Tour evaporated after his team mate Christian Moreni tested positive during the Tour. The police swooped on the team and the scandal forced the Cofidis team to pull out, even if nothing suggested the team had anything to do with Moreni’s madness. Writing the other day in The Guardian, Wiggins revisited his feelings:
On the way home after that, I put my Cofidis kit in a dustbin at Pau airport because I didn’t want to be seen in it, and swore I would never race in it again, because I was so sick at what had happened.
Actually Wiggins did race again in the Cofidis kit, taking two time trial victories before season ended. But he signed for 2008 with the American Highroad squad. Gone were the French squads and their old ways, with sirop in the waterbottles and dreams in their minds. Now Wiggins was spotted racing with a powermeter and teamed up with a young Mark Cavendish too.
Wiggins and Cavendish had an odd year. It was an Olympic year again and Wiggins road season ended after the Giro but he rode through and finished fourth in the final time trial. This backed up his Tour ride in Albi the previous year, a sign of being a lot more than a prologue sniper.
But 2008 was defined by success on the track, he took two gold medals in the Beijing Olympics and three in the world championships. The photo above lets us observe his bulky upper body, in particular the muscles on his back. He’d done a lot of work on his core to ensure stability when pushing a big gear on the track.
In 2009 Wiggins joined the Slipstream team and started the year with a yellow jersey in Qatar after the team time trial. It marked the start of a giant season on the road. He was second in the Paris-Nice prologue, rode the spring classics – now famous for the skeletal photo after Paris-Roubaix – then did the Giro d’Italia. Here he found himself climbing well, not front group but visibly at ease in the mountains before finishing second in the final time trial.
Wiggins was third in the Tour de France’s opening prologue, taking the green jersey. Note the image above taken before start of the stage out of Monaco, you can spot how lean his arms are. With hindsight perhaps the arms were a clue to his legs because on the first summit finish to the swanky Swiss ski resort of Verbier, Wiggins was there to watch Alberto Contador ride away and the Briton was hanging with the likes of the Schlecks, Vincenzo Nibali and Carlos Sastre, whilst Lance Armstrong was behind. In fact he even attacked the group at one point.
This wasn’t a fluke. You can’t fluke this kind of power and as the image above shows, Wiggins was now amongst the front group in the mountains, a head of state, un client in French. He finished the Tour in fourth place, the revelation of the race. His season carried on, he rode the Eneco Tour and only stopped after the Herald Sun Tour in October, ending a block of 10 months’ racing.
2010 saw Team Sky launched with a fanfare but the team had been busy over the winter recruiting Wiggins and as earlier as January 2009 they’d presented their plan to Tour de France boss Christian Prudhomme. Sky bought Wiggins out his contract with Garmin, a very rare move in cycling and a sign of the new team’s financial firepower. The team arrived with the aim of replicating British success on the track on the road with talk of “marginal gains” and a fresh outside approach. Certainly the team was launched with a bang but the results didn’t match the hype. Wiggins was a prologue winner in the Giro but come the Tour, he fell apart and worse, the pressure got to him before he finally appeared in front of the media and gave an emotional confession before finishing 23rd overall.
2011 was a defining year. He made the podium in Paris-Nice and then won the Dauphiné. Suddenly he was a contender for the Tour de France, although I wrote at the time I couldn’t see him winning because the route was hard but took satisfaction from him winning the race and going for the Tour, that it was better to win races during the year on the way to the Tour de France rather than place all your eggs in the Tour basket. This insurance policy proved true when Wiggins crashed out on the road to Chateauroux. Could he have won? Now that we see him as a Tour de France winner it’s hard to know, I’d love to find out if his power data from last year was as good as this year.
Wiggins hadn’t fully recovered from his broken collarbone when he started the Vuelta. It was going to be hot in Spain so he put his indoor bike in a toolshed along with a heater and simulated the Spanish climate whilst pedalling in the north-west of England. It worked and he finished third overall in the Spanish tour after leading during the race and helped by Chris Froome who finished second.
There was no time for celebration. With an eye on the 2012 Olympics, Wiggins immediately aimed for the World Time Trial Championships after the Vuelta, riding a grand tour followed by a major time trial several days later was something to test and evaluate. Wiggins finished second in the time trial. He kept working over the winter and started 2012 with a bang.
He won the Paris-Nice stage race thanks to his time trialling. After seeing this I changed my mind and wrote a piece saying that he could win the Tour as the route suited him but also he was growing in stature and increasingly at ease with leadership, either in the team or on the overall classification. This looked more certain when he won the Tour de Romandie with ease, even taking a stage in a bunch sprint. People were saying he’d peaked too soon but it never looked like this to me, he seemed to be following a plan.
Things went up another level in the Dauphiné when we didn’t just see Wiggins win the race, his team controlled the race and the climb of the Joux Plane on the penultimate day was reminiscent of US Postal. Some made snarky comments – after all we now know US Postal had a team programme to dope many of its riders – but Sky’s doping was financial, they hired riders like Boasson Hagen, Porte and Rogers to play domestique when if they were on another team they’d be the sole leader.
The came the Tour de France. Second place in the prologue in Liège was no surprise given his prologue past. Instead the knock-out result was on Stage 7 and the finish at the Planche des Belles Filles in the Vosges mountains. Chris Froome won the day but Wiggins was there with only Cadel Evans, Vincenzo Nibali and Rein Taraamae for company at the top of the climb. Wiggins took the yellow jersey on Saturday 7 July 2012 and that’s where the story ends, with Wiggins keeping the yellow jersey all through the race and he is now on the verge of winning the Tour de France.
From Britain to France, from the track to the road, from invisible to hi-viz maillot jaune Bradley Wiggins has come a long way. Where will he go next?