Commonwealth Games 2014: Sir Bradley Wiggins goes back to the track hoping to resurrect his future
The bell is beginning to toll on his career and he needs to find a way to ring it out on a high
Wednesday 23 July 2014
It was one of the iconic images of an iconic sporting summer, one that seems ever more glorious with each British failure that litters this one, Bradley on his throne, those long legs folded, fingers raised in a V for victory, lord of all he surveyed. Two years on from 2012 and the zeitgeist image of Sir Bradley Wiggins would be of a man scratching his head, London’s lost boy wondering which road to go down.
Whatever happens between now and when he climbs off the saddle for good, Wiggins will be a British sporting great, a proper cycling legend. The first Briton to win the Tour de France; no Briton has won more Olympic medals; a world champion many times over; but, curiously, never a Commonwealth victor.
That missing link on his CV – he has three silvers from visits to Kuala Lumpur and Manchester – is not one that will long trouble him in his dotage. After all, what is a Commonwealth gold compared to a yellow jersey, one of sport’s greatest and hardest won prizes? Except, except…
This is a medal Wiggins needs. His career since that summer of summers in 2012, when he rang the bell to begin the Games and had a nation falling at his feet, has been a curiosity of dead ends and distant lanes leading no one quite knows where. There have been reminders of what he can do, winning the Tour of Britain last year and cruising to victory in the Tour of California this spring. However, these have been interspersed with falls and failures, the nightmare 2013 Giro and the dire showing in the damp at the world road race in Florence last autumn – like a cat afraid to get its feet wet – just days after taking silver in the time trial. The bell is beginning to toll on his career and he needs to find a way to ring it out on a high, an exit befitting a sportsman of his stature.
And that is where the Commonwealth Games comes in. His future with Team Sky is up in the air and, anyway, with Chris Froome immovable as main man there is no grand departure on offer there. A return to the Tour next year would be as part of Froome’s support crew and for all Wiggins’ insistence that is a role he is happy to play, and may well play next month at the Vuelta a España if Froome is fit, best supporting act is no way to end it all.
Instead the plan is to head for Rio in 2016, one last Olympics and a record eighth Olympic medal for a Briton, one more than Sir Chris Hoy. For that to come to fruition Thursday’s team pursuit in Glasgow needs to go well and a medal would mean a performance to convince Wiggins, his new/old team-mates and Shane Sutton, his old mentor and now head coach at British Cycling, that this is a workable exit strategy.
It is a remarriage made of necessity. Since the team pursuit squad won gold in London they too have lost their way, culminating in coming eighth in this year’s World Championships in Cali. It was Britain’s worst performance in the event since Lottery funding began in 1998. Speaking to The Independent earlier this year about the chances of Wiggins making a return to the track, Sutton raised the prospect that if the team pursuit were not good enough to challenge in Rio it was not worth Wiggins’ while to come back. There is something to prove on both sides.
Ed Clancy, his team-mate, said Wiggins has been going well in training and Wiggins too seems happy, which is half the battle with the 34-year-old (he will be the same age in Rio that Hoy was in London).
“I feel really good,” he said. “I’ve really come on the past couple of weeks. I’m a lot stronger than I used to be in the event, which is one of the things the road has given me. Hopefully, that will continue for the next two years.”
It is an experienced English quartet; Wiggins, Clancy, Steven Burke and Andy Tennant, but they will not be favourites. Australia and New Zealand lay claim to better form. “We’ve got, on paper, the top three teams going for Commonwealth gold,” said Wiggins. “I think the Aussies are probably favourites. It’s for us to try and take it away from them, and we’re still building.”
Wiggins may be unpredictable off the bike, struggling to find a way post-London and having difficulty accepting a role behind Froome – there is a distance between the two and probably always will be – but back in the saddle, when all is right, he retains the qualities that have defined him as a bike rider. His first coach, Sean Bannister, was impressed from day one by his “strong and cool head in a race situation.” Once the gun went or the flag dropped, Wiggins was in the zone. It is a place he desperately wants back into.
Cycling remains his love and he remains the cycling fan he has always been, talking of sitting down with his son to watch the Tour because it is the Tour and that is what cycling fans do. But his future in the sport remains unclear. There is the possibility of a move to Orica-GreenEdge, the Australian team, or a return to Garmin, although staying with Sky – presuming they want him – would be the obvious step given his Olympic track ambitions.
It was at the 1998 Commonwealths that Wiggins earned his first significant medal. It was after the 2002 Commonwealths, and two disappointing silvers, that he was hauled in by Dave Brailsford (long before anyone on a bike had a knighthood) and ordered to pull his finger out. The Commonwealths may not matter that much on the honours board but they have mattered for Wiggins and they will matter one more time if he is to find the perfect farewell in Rio. He is, he said, excited, not nervous, about what lies ahead here, and what that might mean further down his sporting road.
“I’d love to get five [Olympic golds] – when I was a kid Steve Redgrave was the one who set the standard. I never imagined that one day I would come close to equalling his haul. But then to surpass it in terms of all the other coloured medals that you have, and also Sir Chris, that would be an incredible way to finish where it all started in Kuala Lumpur.”
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