Le Gentleman et les Hangers-On
National teams haven’t raced in the Tour de France since 1961, when pressure from bicycle makers led to a return of the trade teams. But that hasn't held back the patriotic cheering for Bradley Wiggins, the first Briton to win the Tour in its 109-year history. Chris Hoy has called his victory ‘the greatest individual achievement in the history of British sport’, though Wiggins owes a fair amount to his team mates: winning the Tour is both a cumulative and a collective achievement.
Unlike Hoy – who with his freakishly powerful body looks as if he could have excelled in any number of sports – Wiggins seems to have been born to be a cyclist. His father was a professional rider, nicknamed ‘the doc’ by his peers because he used to smuggle amphetamines to races in his son’s nappies, and Bradley was brought up watching the Tour. ‘It's what I’ve dreamed of for 20 years,’ he said yesterday.
‘Le Gentleman’, as the English press claims the French papers call him, has great affection for the traditions of the race. Unlike Lance Armstrong, who concentrated on winning the Tour at the exclusion of everything else, Wiggins ‘has incredible respect for the whole racing calendar’, and has already won Paris-Nice and the Critérium du Dauphiné this year.
He’s also been commended for representing ‘le fair play’. During the 14th stage of this year’s Tour, when saboteurs threw carpet tacks onto the road, he neutralised the race so that last year’s winner, Cadel Evans, could catch up with the peloton after getting three punctures. The French papers have been more equivocal about his dominance as race leader. According to L’Equipe, ‘au bout du bout, ce Tour, qui n’a pas offert de véritable suspense, était donc bien une histoire britannique,’ but he’s undoubtedly a popular figure in France. It doesn't hurt that he speaks good French (he was born in Ghent).
He looks like a cyclist from the heroic era: the sideburns, the tall thin frame, the gnarly calves. There's a typology of physiques in cycling: climbers are light and skinny; sprinters like Hoy and Mark Cavendish are brutish powerhouses. Wiggins’s body is suited to most things, but he excels in individual time trials (there were a lot of them in this year's Tour, which is one of the reasons he won).
Wiggins comes across as an amiable grump, who seems to like his fans. After winning he admitted that he didn’t feel as good as he thought he should have, and says he won’t let fame change him: ‘I go to the toilet every day like everyone else... I go home and I clean up dog muck and horse muck, and that’s incredibly grounding.' Though the horse muck suggests his ground is a bit more elevated than most people’s.
Inevitably, David Cameron cashed in on Wiggins’s victory, calling it ‘the perfect backdrop and start to the Olympics’. Boris Johnson claimed him as a ‘legendary Londoner’ (he grew up in south London and learned to race at Herne Hill Velodrome) and cycling advocate, saying ‘his inspirational performances, ably supported by his fellow Team Sky riders including Brits Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish, will encourage thousands more people to take to two wheels.’ And Rupert Murdoch hasn't been shy of basking in reflected glory:
Champagne on ice ready for tomorrow's finish of Tour de France.Team Sky must be supermen, whatever result.
Victory for @ Teamsky in Paris! Brad Wiggins first Brit to win and Froome takes second spot.proud moment for Sky and Britain.
Hoy's remarks about 'individual achievement' suddenly sound a lot more appealing.