Cycling: Do we trash or treasure our memories of Bradley Wiggins’ rise to the top?

Richard Williams
The Guardian

The golden throne outside Hampton Court Palace. The Sun’s stick-on sideburns. The ringing of a 23-ton bell to open the Olympics. The quirky victory speech on the Champs-Elysées. The crescendo of noise that greeted the smashing of the world hour record in the London velodrome. A kaleidoscope of memories. How far in the past they seem now, and how faded the images, as a beleaguered Bradley Wiggins seeks to preserve his reputation.

The incessant attacks, including the particularly massive one provoked by yesterday’s release of the parliamentary report into doping in UK sport, tend to focus on Dave Brailsford, who drove the project that moulded British Cycling and Team Sky into a dominant force in international cycling. But Wiggins is already the biggest casualty, since it was he who most vividly embodied not just sporting success but cycling’s new nationwide visibility and popularity.

A combination of athletic prowess and personal eccentricity made him a beloved national figure. Riding from success to success, he also could be relied upon to say something mildly outrageous every time he was invited to open his mouth. By slapping the red, white and blue roundel on his kit and thus aligning himself with the pop art aspirations of 1960s Mod culture, he gave what had once been a working‑class sport its new Cool Britannia image.

But should Wiggins’s historic achievements now be trashed because, while apparently remaining within the letter of the anti-doping laws, he was reportedly party to Team Sky’s attempt to push the use of treatment permitted for medical conditions beyond its ethical limits? Should he be classed with Lance Armstrong, banished to the outer darkness once his systematic use of hardcore doping products was revealed, or with Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil, who made use of performance-enhancing stimulants in the days before doping became illegal and who remain the objects of unqualified veneration today? Or somewhere in between?

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Unfortunately for Wiggins’s attempts to clear himself, his triumphs came directly as a result of Team Sky’s campaign to put a rider on the top step of the Tour de France podium within five years of their arrival on the scene in 2010. And the further those early years recede into the distance, the more clearly the pattern created by the desire for success begins to emerge.

In the team’s first year, Wiggins had a bad Tour. “Want me to be honest with you? I’m fucked, mate,” he told us midway through the race. “I’ve got nothing. I just don’t have the form, it’s as simple as that. I’m not going to lie to you. I just feel consistently mediocre. Not brilliant, not shit, just mediocre. It’s form – it’s a funny old thing.”

That wasn’t good enough for Brailsford, who spent the next 12 months supervising an attempt to turn his No 1 rider’s form into something more solid than “a funny old thing”. Tens of millions of pounds of sponsorship cash as well as pride were at stake. Success was not a dream or an optional extra but a necessity.

In 2011 the effort was thwarted by a crash on the seventh stage that removed Wiggins from the race. A few days later, still massaging his disappointment while leaning against the team bus in a small town in the Pyrenees, Brailsford could remark: “We’ve got a lot of staff and sports scientists who’d worked hard to create a real plan of attack for this race for Bradley.”

Now, thanks to the Russian hackers known as Fancy Bears, to the sacked coach Shane Sutton and to the anonymous “well-placed” source who spoke to the parliamentary inquiry, we have a rather better idea of what the plan entailed, involving a bit more than longer training runs and extra nights spent sleeping in an oxygen tent. Syringes charged with 40mg doses of triamcinolone acetonide – a corticosteroid permitted for the treatment of asthma via the acquisition of a therapeutic use exemption – were also a part of the programme for Wiggins and, so it is now alleged, other members of the team who rode in support of his successful attempt to capture the yellow jersey.

Wiggins did not mention his asthma in his autobiography, published in 2012. He did claim that he had never had an injection, apart from immunisations. While Wiggins “strongly refutes the claim that any drug was used without medical need”, his willingness while compiling that account to overlook these aspects of his career as an athlete makes it much harder to accept anything he might wish to say in his defence.

His recent attempt to put a bit of distance between himself and his former employers, with a claim that Team Sky “ruin” young riders, seemed like a waste of a public-speaking opportunity that would have been better used to give a clear and straightforward statement of what really went on to turn the disappointment of 2010 into the triumphs of 2012.

Meanwhile, we sit in front of the TV or the cinema screen and snigger at his appearance in an expensively produced advertisement for a family car. “Driven by something different” is what it says. In the catalogue of aspects of this story that can make you laugh and wince at the same time, that slogan can be filed alongside the stolen laptop containing the riders’ medical records and the misaddressed consignment of testosterone patches.

In the car ad, a small child falls over while learning to ride a bike. Like all racing cyclists, Wiggins has fallen from the saddle often enough. But it is his fall from grace that leaves us wondering what to do with the admiration once so freely given.

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