Sir Bradley Wiggins, one of Britain’s most decorated Olympic athletes, has embarked on a new venture – the ‘Bradley Wiggins: An Evening With tour’.
This tour sees Wiggins recount memorable tales from his highly eventful cycling career as well as some more personal stories from his childhood in London. On 23 September, I attended the Harrogate leg of the tour, which was held in the beautiful surroundings of the Royal Hall. It seemed apt to be in Harrogate, considering the town is hosting a number of time trial events as part of the World Cycling Championships taking place across Yorkshire this September.
The host for the evening was ITV cycling’s Matt Barbet who welcomed the audience, and then disappeared from view, but not before playing a brief (but very well prepped) video montage showing Wiggins getting ready backstage. The two men then appeared together on stage, looking very relaxed, both with a glass of wine in hand.
Wiggins’ early years
The conversation between Wiggins and Barbet began with talk of Wiggins’ childhood. The cycling star was born in Ghent, Belgium, where he and his family were based for his father’s cycling career. Just before Wiggin’s turned a year old, he and his mother travelled to London to spend the new year with his grandparents whilst his father took part in a new year tour on the continent. However, whilst in London, his mother received a call from her husband, telling her that he had found someone else and would not be returning. As a result, Wiggins and his mother made the permanent move to London, initially living with his grandparents, and then moving to a bedsit on a council estate in the north of the city.
Wiggins spent much of his childhood playing football with friends. He was a good player too –scouted for West Ham as a pre-teen. However, he also loved cycling, a passion, he recounted, that was not very cool in the Kilburn estate where he lived. It was certainly something that he would have ‘got his head kicked in for’ should any of the other guys on the estate have seen him out training. As a result, Wiggins kept his passion secret, covering up his lycra with his football tracksuit, and not removing the suit until he was a ‘safe’ distance away.
The passion for cycling grows
Despite the difficulties, his passion for cycling grew. His grandmother helped feed this passion. She frequently spoke about his Dad’s accomplishments as a cyclist, always portraying the Australian pro in a positive light, despite his dependence on alcohol and his violent tendencies. What added more fuel to Wiggins’ fire, he recalled, was watching the Olympics as a teenager and seeing Lance Armstrong’s dominant performance in the World Championships, aged just 21. It was during such performances, Wiggins explained, that he realised he wanted to be a cyclist.
However, few people, if any, had any confidence in his ability. He recounted one story from his school years when a teacher took him aside and asked him what he wanted to do with his life (as he had little interest in academics and was not focussing in lessons). Wiggins explained that he told the teacher that he wanted to be an Olympic champion, but the teacher laughed. Although such a reaction would deter many from pushing towards their goals, the young Wiggins used such reactions to push him further in cycling.
Aged 15/16, he started to do well on the national and European stage, often mentioned in national and international cycling magazines. It was one such mention that sparked a phone call from Wiggins’ father. The call came from Australia, where his father had relocated, and led to the young Wiggins spending a month in Australia to get to know his father better. However, things didn’t work out, and on leaving, he vowed never to speak to his father again.
Experiences as a pro-cyclist
Talk then turned to Wiggins’ experiences as a pro cyclist, starting with his first Olympic event in Sydney where he won a bronze medal. Despite this achievement, confidence in his abilities had not increased, and the expectations for him to get ‘a proper job’ on his return were obvious. Thankfully, Wiggins continued to focus on cycling. Before he knew it, he was back at the Olympics, competing in Athens, where he won yet more medals. However, money was running low, and with a young and growing family to support, he took to the roads.
Wiggins recounted his first summer in France, where he trained with a number of French cyclists. He said that he had hated the experience as it was not only highly pressured and competitive, but he also had to spend the time living in a basement flat. He jokingly told the audience about his experiences as a cyclo-cross rider – something that he didn’t take to naturally, showing us a video of him falling off his bike mid race and landing in a muddy puddle.
However, as the years went on, and his skills on the road progressed, and he started to be recognised as a real threat in competition. His first attempt at the Tour de France in 2009 saw him finish 4th – a very respectable performance, and one that laid the path for his future successes. It also led to him joining Team Sky in 2010 (recently re-named Ineos under new sponsors), which he said is what allowed him to train like never before, but also saw him become immersed in an elite set-up that was ‘very business-like and unsustainable’ with regard to managing his family life.
As a by-line to other discussions, Wiggins talked about his collection of jerseys (a collection which includes over 800 jerseys previously worn by Olympic, world and Tour de France winning cyclists). He told us that although his collection may seem weird to some, ‘Their stuff means more to me than my stuff,’ and as a result, he wanted to be a curator – looking after the items that tell the history of the sport.
Achievements of 2012
After a brief interval, Wiggins’ returned to the stage to talk about his incredible achievements in 2012. Although I, like many in the audience, was amazed by his achievements that year, he seemed very relaxed about them, stating that ‘it became very mechanical, like work. I had no emotion.’ He explained that the Tour had been tough, but that since he had to go straight to the Olympics, he had very little time to reflect or recover. Instead, he went straight back to training and then went on to win gold in the 2012 time trial; an achievement that he couldn’t quite believe, considering how tired he had been going into the race.
After 2012, Wiggins drive for competition was dwindling. He explained that he craved normality, and therefore every training session and every race was only about reaching the end. He did go on to break the world record in the hour time trial, an achievement that he is extremely proud of, and one that he would not want to attempt again considering the torture of watching the clock every lap. He also won another gold medal as part of the winning British team pursuit squad at the Rio Olympics. However, soon after that, he retired.
Redefining after retirement
Wiggins explained that since retiring he has tried to move on as a person – finding a new career, and a new passion. Explaining that: ‘I don’t want to live off the back of it [cycling career]. I live off of being me, and I’m happy in my own skin.’ He recently starting training to be a social worker after enrolling for a degree at Open University. This decision was sparked in part by his desire to redefine himself after his cycling career, but also because he is determined to find ways to help people.
However, his feisty nature and strong personality are still very much in evidence. He is one of the few athletes to have both received the Sports Personality of The Year Award (achieving it in 2012 after his history-making Tour de France win) and being honoured with a knighthood (for services to cycling the following year). He told us about an outburst at home during which he smashed his honour and his award. The reason for this, Wiggins explained, was to ‘make a point to them’. [his children]. ‘I wanted to show them that it’s not the material items that we now polish on the mantelpiece for the rest of our lives which elevate dad in our household as something special.’ He went on to explain that the medals and the trophies are not the success, but rather, ‘The success is that I applied myself, like Steve did, to something, and the application and to sacrifice so much.’ I can understand the rationale for his actions, but for me, destroying two awards that are so symbolic is sacrilegious and left me feeling uncomfortable.
Thankfully, talk then turned to Wiggins’ experiences commentating at the Tour de France last summer, and his realisation of ‘just how much I love it – when you are competing there’s a lot of emotion taken up with it all in dealing with the event to cross the line. It’s actually hard to get excited at the end of a race, so going back to it without all the pressure and watching it as a fan was great.’ It would be fabulous to see Wiggins commentating at more events, helping to inspire young cyclists.
Before the evening closed, he took some questions from the audience. These varied from why he wasn’t wearing socks, to which he responded: ‘You shouldn’t care about that. There are much bigger things in the world to worry about than my socks!’, to questions about whether he ever peed whilst out riding! – to which he responded: ‘Yes, but only once as a teenager. I was freezing and thought it would warm me up, and it did, but then I got even colder.’ He said that he didn’t ever do it again as his shoes were smelly for ages.
Summing it all up
The evening was fascinating, thought-provoking and insightful – giving us, the audience, a peek into the life and achievements of Sir Bradley Wiggins – one of the greatest cyclists Britain has ever produced. Although there were elements of the evening that did make me a little uncomfortable considering I am an aspiring Olympic athlete, I did take a lot away from the evening and would encourage others to attend. The tour continues for another couple of weeks (next landing in Newcastle on the 26th September then on to Liverpool for early October) and if you are able to buy tickets, you can look forward to seeing lots of cycling memorabilia, hearing anecdotes of racing rivalries, and being allowed a peek into the world of Wiggins.
Photograph by Graham Finney http://www.grahamfinneyphotography.co.uk