As Bradley Wiggins ‘hangs up his lycra’ as The Times put it today you would expect that it would be an opportunity to celebrate his outstanding lifetime achievements as the most decorated British Olympian, breaker of the Hour record and the first Briton to ever win the Tour de France. Sadly, for any British cycling fan, if we’re going to be absolutely honest with ourselves, any retrospective of his career has to be tainted by the TUE revelations that came out this year and the unconvincing stories and explanations behind ‘that package’ delivered to him at the 2011 Dauphiné.
But, in time honoured fashion, much of the cycling Press and fans seem only too willing to brush over the facts when it comes to the possibility of any misdemeanours, compromised ethics and contradictory accounts from British Cycling, Dave Brailsford and Wiggins himself.
Take Alasdair Fotheringham’s piece in The Independent yesterday, for instance, with the headline, “Bradley Wiggins’ versatility on the bike set him apart as one of the all-time greats”. It revels in his victories with only a passing reference to the last few “tumultuous months on a career stretching back to his track victories as a junior…” The message is that we should be rejoicing in what he achieved rather than asking some tricky and uncomfortable questions.
And, while the Guardian had the courage to spell out some of the controversies in a little more detail, the overwhelming tone of the article was, again, one of celebration rather than condemnation.
Wiggins sheepishly appeared at the Olympic Velodrome for the London Six Day event, only weeks after startling revelations about his undeclared intramuscular injections. What reaction would he get from the spectators? To his relief, the crowd couldn’t help themselves, decided to forget any doubts they may have held, and reverted to nostalgic Wiggomania from the glory days of 2012’s Tour and Olympic success.
All this comes with the news that there appears to be no paper trail offering proof of the contents of the package couriered from Manchester to Geneva in 2011. As Damian Collins MP told The Times on Thursday, “the more we discover about the package, the more questions seem to be thrown up.”
It seems that Wiggins is too dear in our hearts for us to question how he got some of those results. And Wiggins is not alone in our favourable interpretation of a cyclist’s career. Who ever questions the feted Eddie Merckx about his doping past? Heralded as the greatest cyclist of all time he was disqualified on four separate occasions over eight years in an era when testing was neither stringent nor sophisticated, raising the question of whether there were other occasions when he resorted to illegal means to beat his opponents. Everyone knew that Marco Pantani took EPO. Yet the Italians name a stage of the Giro, the Cima Pantani, after him every year. And, while Armstrong is now vilified and demonized as representing a whole era, his contemporaries such as Jan Ullrich (also banned) now appear to be experiencing a rehabilitation as seen by his appearance at this year’s Rouleur Classic event in London.
There are some we can and some we can’t forgive. It seems that Sir Bradley Wiggins is lucky enough to fall into the former camp. Unfortunately for cycling, while we fool ourselves about past indescretions by some, yet vilify others for theirs, the murky world of doping in cycling will continue.
Let’s be honest here. Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky resorting to TUEs at those crucial times just before the Tour de France and Giro absolutely compromised the stance that had been set out by his team in the first place. The fact that he failed to mention any injections in his autobiography was an acknowledgement of that fact. And Brailsford’s explanation that a medicine costing €8 and available from a chemist only a few kilometers away in France, was couriered especially from Manchester beggars belief.
The truth is we fell in love too deeply with the romantic idea of a boy from Kilburn achieving what he did. And it hurts us too much to raise doubts about that affair. Wiggins’ story of rags to riches, complete with an abusive, absent, alcoholic father is too good a tale to dismiss.
What’s more, we loved his cheeky persona and swagger, how he fooled about after winning the Tour and lounged around in that throne giving the victory sign outside Hampton Court at the Olympics. As Chris Boardman writes in an introduction for Bradley Wiggins’ My Hour, everyone held their breath when he stepped up to accept his Sports Personality of the Year Award: “Is he going to swear, put two fingers up, or give the most eloquent speech you could possibly imagine?” Here was a sportsman with a bit of character and Rock and Roll aspirations, diminishing the bland Andy Murrays, Chris Hoys and Steve ‘interesting’ Davises to boring mediocrity.
And for cycling fans who had spent their entire lives ridiculed for their minority sport, unflattering lycra and lack of homegrown success, Brad led the charge in, at last, achieving a tidal wave of phenomenal British Olympic victories. And the day he won the Tour! The very idea of a British Tour winner had been inconceiveable up to that point, beyond the dreams of even the most optimistic fan.
Meanwhile we find it equally impossible to doubt Sir Dave Brailsford, the grand architect behind all of it. Another Knight of the Realm, a National Treasure who embodies British grit and determination, hard work. He who had the guts to take on the continentals at their own game and beat them.
Team Sky set out a stall a few years ago of being cleaner than everyone else in the peloton. And open. Well, the world that MPs have been trying to peer into is as transparent as the thick blanket of fog that has recently shrouded the Palace of Westminster. Shane Sutton’s indignation at the establishment questioning British Cycling’s success at the Culture, Media and Sport Committee hearing earlier this month made uncomfortable listening. “You…should be embracing the success and not questioning it,” he said. I think I remember Lance Armstrong saying a similar thing a few years ago.
We will miss Sir Bradley Wiggins for his unpredictability, his brilliance, and astounding success on the track and road. I would love to be celebrating all of what he achieved right now. But I can’t help feeling that the sheen of those trophies and medals has been tarnished by doubts. I’d love to be able to put them aside but can’t immerse myself into the world of denial that so many are living in at the moment.