Bradley Wiggins: The one-track mind which brought home three medals

Not since Mary Rand in 1964 has a Briton risen to such heights at a Games. Nick Townsend in Athens hears how it was all in a night's work

"Agh, you poms," boomed an Aussie journalist with a contempt we have come to anticipate from that continent. "You lot only win gold medals when you're sittin' on your arses." Kelly Holmes may have something to say about that. But apart from the 800m and 1500m champion, he is correct. It is a curious fact that British backsides have been particularly prominent in the garnering of cycling, equestrian, sailing and rowing honours.

And none more so than the derrière of Bradley Wiggins, whose head was still in a trance after Wednesday night's bronze - his third medal in a week - in the madison event with partner Rob Hayles. All athletes get accreditation before the Games; his must have come supplied with a podium season ticket.

After being photographed seated on the track of the velodrome, with his gold (individual pursuit), silver (team pursuit) and bronze (madison) medals, obligatory Union flag and obliging fiancée, radiographer Catherine Cochran, Wiggins spoke of becoming a helmeted man of history. "Yes, someone told me it was actually a lady [whose record he had equalled]. In '64, wasn't it?" That was some lady. That was "golden girl" Mary Rand. Though admittedly his father would have struggled to recall her, let alone this 24-year-old.

One formidable Olympian he is not slow to recognise, though, is Matthew Pinsent. "I was sitting there, having pictures taken, and Matthew came up and congratulated me." A case of Lord of the Lakes greets Viscount of the Velodrome? "He just said, 'Phenomenal. Really well done'. As soon as I saw him, I thought, 'Christ!' I mean, this is a guy who I've always looked up to. So it was just mind-blowing. A bit of a dream."

A description that could be applied to the madison, a monster of an event, in which 18 teams of two riders conspire to produce a kaleidoscope of colours amid what is best described as organised mayhem. It is actually a highly tactical race, requiring the teams to engage in 10 sprints within 50km, or 200 laps of the velodrome, while also endeavouring to lap their rivals. Britain's bronze was secured despite the 108th-lap fall of Hayles, when he collided with the Dutchman Robert Slippens.

"In the madison, it's very cutthroat. There's a lot of pushing and barging. You usually have to take a few people's wheels away. That's probably what happened to Rob," Wiggins said. "You have to be ruthless and keep reminding yourself that an Olympic medal is something that you'll have for the rest of your life. People were saying to me that I didn't look as though I'd finished that tired. I told them, 'It's all in a night's work to me'."

He was not being flippant, either. If you can take all that the winter "six-day circuit" throws at you, you can ride in any event. It is cycling's modern equivalent of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, that bleak cinematic portrayal of the American Depression, when couples danced themselves either to exhaustion or the prize for being the last pair standing. Through the dark winter months, in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Dortmund, Munich, and Ghent, the cyclists gather, like migrating geese, for these marathons of track cycling.

"It's my bread and butter," says Wiggins. "We take our start money, of £2,000 up to around £30,000, depending on who you are - hopefully, now I'll be riding for a lot more - and race from 8pm until maybe 4am. The spectators, thousands of them, stand in the middle and get drunk while the racing's going on around them."

Within such an incongruous regime, Olympic aspirations are born. "You're racing like we just have twice a night for an hour each time, and then you've got other events. Of course, it's fixed, a lot of it, but it's still hard."

Fixed? "Well, you race for five days flat out, and then they decide to make a show of it on the last night...."

He adds: "I was born to do this. My father was a six-day rider. He was European madison champion, so I grew up around velodromes. That was my first love. So, this is getting back to my roots."

The Olympic version can be addictive for spectators, too, even if it is a bit too reminiscent of a commuter's nightmare day on the roads. The BBC's Barry Davies, a keen cyclist in his day, was seated beside this observer, and was beside himself when the Wiggins-Hayles rally began in earnest during the latter part of the race, in common with much of the Union-flag-waving velodrome. For the half-resting commentator, half-fan, it had been, since Hayles's tumble, a case of where were the Brits? They answered with a valiant effort which ultimately took the British pair into a bronze position - and Wiggins into track- cycling immortality.

Does Wiggins have the personality to cope with what may happen next? The elevation to celebrity? "I think so," retorts the rider. "I'm still Bradley Wiggins, from London. It's just taking it on the chin and being yourself. People are talking about honours and being nominated for Sports Personality of the Year. When people start talking like that, it's crazy really."

He adds: "Since I was 12 I've never lived beyond 24. This was always my life's goal, winning Olympic gold. This year, it's just been madness, the pressure I've put on myself [to win the individual gold] and how much I wanted it."

The fact that Wiggins is actually half British, by his mother, Linda, half Outback Australian, by his father, Garry, helps explain his redoubtable qualities. He was actually born in Ghent, Belgium, where his father was racing professionally at the time. When his parents split up, Wiggins Jnr returned to London's Maida Vale with his mother.

"Until I was about 19, my training used to consist of setting out from Maida Vale and riding up the A40 to Denham, or cycling straight up the A1 up to Welwyn Garden City," he recalls. A bit dangerous, wasn't it, you suggest? He laughs. "Well, now I train in the countryside of Derbyshire and Lancashire. But I look back and think 'Christ Almighty, a 16-year-old going out on those roads?' I had a few crashes, yes. My worst injury was breaking my wrist just before a world championships. I was riding down Kilburn Park Road and I crashed into a skip. A No 28 bus put me into it.

"The entire wrist was shattered. I had pins inserted. But I still managed to race in those championships two weeks later with a cast on the wrist."

Such indefatigability has produced a champion. "At Sydney, I got a bronze at the age of 20 in the team pursuit and I thought, 'Right, I'll get gold next time'," says Wiggins, who scarcely rests before starting the Tour of Britain on Wednesday. "I've shown progression every year. I've never really had disappointments like, say, Kelly Holmes. I'm very lucky."

The renaissance of British track-cycling began in 1992 in Barcelona with Chris Boardman, who is technical adviser to the GB team. "What we have done has given the sport another boost," Wiggins says. "It could be like rowing, which has really taken off in popularity in the last few years because of [Steve] Redgrave and Pinsent.

"As a sport, track cycling is very attractive to watch. It's very space-age, with all the aero[dynamic] bikes, and the pointy helmets. People fall in love with it. The only trouble is that there's only two velodromes in the UK: Manchester and Newport. We need a couple more. They're planning on building one in London for 2012, which is excellent."

Drug-enhancement in British cycling, Wiggins says, employing an appropriate metaphor, "has left a bitter taste in my mouth". He adds: "Straight after qualifying fastest for the pursuit I was called to dope control. I had an EPO test the day after my individual gold as well." Ask him why a concerted campaign of drug-testing is so important to him - the Great Britain set-up also plan to introduce a monthly blood-test - and he retorts: "The young kids who I shook hands with in the back straight tonight. When I was 12 I watched Chris [Boardman] win the gold and it inspired me. As athletes, we have a responsibility to those people watching."

Speaking of Boardman, the last question, on his future, is inevitable: will he follow the same route as that Olympic gold medallist did initially, and ride in the Tour de France? "I'm not sure I want to flog myself round the Tour for three weeks for the next few years," he says. "Once I've got home and absorbed all this, and reflected on it all, I'll decide."

At last, he can contemplate just what he has achieved. "When I won the individual gold, I put the medal in my drawer and concentrated on the other events. Now I can take it out and say, 'Yes, I'm Olympic champion'," says Wiggins, Britain's hero of the handlebars. And never mind that he achieved it balanced on his behind.

Biography

Bradley Wiggins

Born: 24 April 1980 in Ghent, Belgium.

Olympic medals: 2000 (Sydney) Bronze team pursuit; 2004 (Athens) Gold ind. pursuit, Silver team pursuit, Bronze madison (Rob Hayles).

Commonwealth Games medals: 1998 Silver team pursuit; 2002 Silver team pursuit, ind. pursuit.

World Championships medals: 1999 Gold madison (Rob Hayles); 2000, 2001, 2003 Silver team pursuit. 2003 Gold ind. pursuit. European medal: 2003 Gold ind. pursuit.

Other: Made professional road debut in 2002 with French La Française des Jeux team. This year will ride with Credit Agricole, former team of Chris Boardman.

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