As An Evening with Bradley Wiggins meanders through his life story, with emotion, humour and plenty of profanity, everyone and everything falls into his line of fire. The “bitch” who knocked him off his bike aged 13 and broke his collarbone. Dave Brailsford. Ned Boulting. The BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards. The Daily Mail. Margaret Thatcher. The school art teacher who laughed when Wiggins said he wanted to become an Olympic champion. “She smoked 50 a day so she’ll be long dead by now,” he says with a smile.
At one point he ridicules the imaginary children he would have raised had he decided to move to Monaco when the money started rolling in, and it is not a huge leap to think this might be a dig at his former teammate Chris Froome, who lives in the principality. “I thought about moving to Monaco but then I thought ‘fuck that’. I don’t want my kids growing up like idiots, wearing loafers. I want them to learn the simple things in life, like going down the shops when the milk runs out.”
This sentiment brings applause from the sell-out audience at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham, perhaps in part because it captures who Wiggins is, or at least how he desperately wants to be perceived: the boy who rose from the salt of the earth to conquer the world. He describes himself as “just a boy from Kilburn” several times through the evening, and of his hectic life after winning the Tour de France he says: “The minute I got called a ‘celebrity’, I had to get out and get back to the real world.” As he empties his Olympic medals on to the stage from a Co-op carrier bag, he describes them as “junk” that means nothing to him.
But Wiggins also seems tangled in contradiction. He cannot understand why journalists still write about him because “I’m not relevant anymore”, yet here he is selling out theatres, promoting his new book and building a media career while very publicly setting old bridges ablaze as he goes. The reality, whether Wiggins likes it or not – and it is hard to tell – is that he will be forever relevant, stitched into the fabric of the sport as Olympic champion and the first Briton to win the Tour de France. His UK tour is ostensibly about promoting his new book, Icons, and yet the rapt crowd is a reminder of his own enduring iconic status, despite the TUE revelations and the Jiffy-bag scandal. An impressive array of sideburns in the stalls says as much.
His book has drawn much criticism from the cycling world for including Lance Armstrong among 21 riders he idolised. The head of world cycling David Lappartient labelled it “unacceptable”, while current Tour champion and former teammate Geraint Thomas said on Sunday that Wiggins was deliberately garnering publicity. There is nothing hugely controversial about what Wiggins writes about Armstrong, who truly was one his biggest influences – among the many memorabilia on stage (Wiggins is something of an obsessive collector and has been since childhood) is Armstrong’s famous blue jersey with white stars and a red stripe, which the American wore when he won the 1993 World Championship.
I’m not going to change my story just to appease people like Ned Boulting
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But it is telling that Wiggins introduces Armstrong in his book with the phrase: “Those who are easily offended should look away now…”, and points to another part of the Wiggins persona which evidently still chimes with some sections of the Great British public – that he doesn’t have much time for political correctness, a champion for ‘saying it like it is’.
Take his response to critics of his book. “I don’t give a fuck about all them arsewipes,” he says on stage. “Cycling News, the Daily Mail. I will tell my story. They don’t listen to the context. [Armstrong] was an inspiration at a certain point in my life. I didn’t always like him – when he raced for US Postal Service, with the black socks, all the Americanism – but that performance [in 1993] still gives me goosebumps.
“I’m not going to change my story just to appease people like Ned Boulting. I know far more about the sport than he does and I’ll challenge him on it. He just needs to engage his brain every now and then.”
The night is not all swearing at Ned Boulting. Wiggins is skilled at entertaining an audience and there are some very funny moments, like his long description of the sheer boredom he felt riding the hour record. He reveals he rode the team pursuit at the Athens Olympics with a stonking hangover, and pulls off passable impressions of Brailsford (“he’ll hate me after this week,” Wiggins mutters as he swigs some wine), and Mark Cavendish – one of the few people he seems to like.
There are also moments of genuine emotion. He wells up as he recalls aspects of his troubled childhood. He describes his father, an Australian cyclist who walked out when Wiggins was only two, and who was later murdered, as both his cycling hero who was nearly included in his book of icons, and “a cruel bastard” who was violent towards his mother and whom he hated.
Ultimately what comes across both in his show and his book is the obsessive cycling fan that he is. The expansive collection of jerseys from moments in history is testament to that, and there is no escaping his love for the sport which gripped him as child, which drove him to sneak across his estate with his embarrassing lycra covered by a tracksuit, to ride to the shop to buy the latest copy of Cycling Weekly, to race through the streets of north London until it got dark.
Along with his wit, it is this love which makes him oddly endearing, albeit in a slightly threatening way, like someone you might know for years without ever really knowing, who you suspect might one day lace your cereal with poison. Wiggins evidently still retains a kind of allure for the British public. His legacy is caught in a grey area, like the ones Team Sky are accused of unethically exploiting, but there is an enduring admiration among many ordinary cyclists, of which he was once one – an admiration which he reciprocates, in his own way.
“All those people in Surrey complaining about cyclists on the road,” he says at one point, breaking away on one of his many tangents. “Let them ride. Let Surrey suffer. They’re all Daily Mail readers in Surrey anyway.”