By William Fotheringham
Sir Bradley Wiggins is rarely lost for words, whether it’s the one-liners that accompany his major successes, or the nuanced explanations that fill most of his interviews, but when it comes to the nearly impossible position that he was left in last year, having won the 2012 Tour de France but almost immediately been ousted as Sky’s Tour leader by his younger, stronger team-mate Chris Froome, he struggles.
That’s hardly surprising, when you bear in mind that the Tour was Wiggins’s focus from the moment he resumed training after the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He describes “having a monkey on my back for four years about winning the Tour – we’d sit here saying ‘can you win the Tour this year?’; ‘are you ever going to win the Tour?’; ‘is this your last opportunity to win the Tour?’; ‘the Tour looks made for you this year …’ And then I did it, and it never felt about going back and winning a second Tour.
"There was so much emphasis on winning the first one [by a Briton] and then you’ve got a guy in the team who’s five years younger than me, who finished second and has then gone on to win it who potentially could dominate the Tour for five or six years …" And here he flounders, which is pretty much what he did on his bike in the early part of 2013.
At least Wiggins may be going back to the Tour this July, assuming he finds the form he needs. He believes he will have to be capable of getting on to the podium or near it to earn his place alongside Froome in Sky’s squad. That looked remote last June, when he told the Guardian that he was having serious doubts about whether he would ever find the mental strength to make the sacrifices he needed to in order to return to France. That followed a spring of speculation about who would lead Sky.
"From the moment I won the Tour in 2012 it was always [seen as] inevitable – ‘when are you going to start the preparations to defend it next year?’. People would ask that but in my head I’d be thinking, hold on a minute, I’ve only just come to terms with this one. There came a point where it was fight, flight or freeze, so my initial thoughts were, I don’t want to ride next year, I need a year off.
"I was quite vulnerable then," he says of the days after he quit the Giro d’Italia with a knee problem. "There was so much going on. I’d had that injury. I felt quite low. Chris was winning everything. It was such a drastic change from the year before. I’d been knocked off the treadmill – finally. I remember the tone of that interview. It was very much relief. It wasn’t giving up, it was more, yeah, OK, maybe I can accept it now.
"But a couple of weeks after that I got my knee sorted, came out to Mallorca, started training … going up all the climbs I’d been doing in training [in 2012]. I realised when I was out here again that I loved training and that I loved the sport. When I watched bits of the Tour [I realised] that I missed it and that I wanted to go back. I’m not done yet."
It might seem obvious that Wiggins’s desire to return to the Tour is linked to the fact that it will never come closer to his adopted Lancashire home, although the start is on the other side of the Pennines in Yorkshire. But it’s not that.
"You forget about the venue and you train for the demands of it. You want to be there because when you start thinking outside the physical aspects of the Tour, with it starting in the UK, you can imagine what it’s going to be like. You won’t realise until you’re there because it still doesn’t sound right, the Tour starting in Leeds.
"London seven years ago seemed more normal because you expect a capital city to host the Tour but Leeds, you know, it’s quite random for the Tour de France. That’s not disrespectful but a mark of how big the sport is in the UK is now."
His decision to try for a slot with Sky this July is not really a matter of loose ends. It’s pretty apparent that a second Tour win is no longer on the Wiggins radar. After that brief stumble, he says simply, “I think Chris has earned the right to defend the Tour this year and I’d love to go back and play a part in that and not just sulk off and give up because I’m not the leader.”
Ask Wiggins if he has unfinished business and the answer is no. Ask him if there are things he wants to achieve and the answer is yes. That sounds like a contradiction but it’s actually a nuance. He is no longer haunted as he was by his first Olympic gold or the need to prove that the promise he showed in the Tour in 2009 was more than a fluke but there is stuff he wants to do: win the world time trial championship, perform in Paris-Roubaix – the first time in over 20 years a Tour de France winner has expressed this ambition – and conquer American hearts and minds.
Bizarre as it may seem to the 99.9% of the world who do not have to worry about such things, Wiggins is a man who struggles to deal with major success. A pattern is obvious throughout his career in which achieving a long-term goal is succeeded by a mental low. The “lost winter” of 2004-05, in which his Belgian beer collection disappeared, came after his first Olympic gold medal, at Athens; his breakthrough in the Tour de France and controversial transfer to Team Sky in 2009 were followed by a troubled 2010.
Last year fits precisely into that template. “You have the disappointment and it’s after [that] that you realise what it takes to get there in the first place. It’s a bit like forgetting to walk. You take for granted that you can walk, you do it every day, and then suddenly you can’t walk and you have to remember, how did I get out of this chair and start walking in the first place? It’s what I’ve done this winter.”
"Things change. I left for [the Tour start in] Liège in 2012 relatively unknown to the public and came back five weeks later the most famous man in the country, for one week maybe. No one can prepare you for that. You have this massive high then go below, then you come back up to it and recalibrate. You get back on an even keel."
In the immediate aftermath of his annus mirabilis of 2012, in which he began winning in February and kept winning until August, culminating in the Tour win and Olympic gold double, Wiggins seemed to be struggling to take it all on board. In late August, when we sat down to write his account of those months, he said he still could not believe he had won the Tour de France; he said similar things in interviews later in the year.
He readily acknowledges that winning the Tour did not come easily to him. “I hated it last year. I tried to shy away from it. I didn’t like doing team presentations at races, being introduced as the winner of the Tour. I felt quite embarrassed by it. I don’t know why that was. I think a lot of it was to do with the Lance Armstrong stuff.
"After the Lance thing broke it just got horrible and that affected how I came back to Europe [in 2013]. There is a whole knock-on effect in the rest of your life. When I did win the Tour I felt I was feted more in the UK for being an Olympic gold medallist … Then I come back to Europe to race and they’re not interested in the Olympic gold, it’s about being the winner of the Tour de France – here he is.
"The Lance stuff was so raw, people were so angry about it. I felt like I was constantly being judged, I felt I’d had enough of it – it was constant. Now a year on, not having done the Tour [in 2013], all that side of it has settled down, now I’m starting to embrace it more, that I’ve won the Tour de France" – and here, there is an extra emphasis on the W-word as he speaks – "and I can carry myself with a bit of pride. You know what? I’vewon the Tour de France and now I feel ready to talk about it."