A year ago Sir Bradley Wiggins was Cat Wiggins, unpredictable and unwilling to go out in the wet. He had endured a nightmare experience in the Giro d’Italia, his season was in tatters and he seemed a man adrift; the cat who walked by himself. It was an impression only strengthened by his dire performance at a rain-soaked world road race in Florence at the year’s end. The event concluded without him and with his attitude openly doubted by his own coaches.
A year on Wiggins spent last week purring around the wide roads of California, flourishing in the sunshine and setting up – barring the sort of disaster that is always the turn of a wheel away in this dangerous game – the real possibility of a return to the Tour de France for the first time since his historic victory in 2012. Britain’s greatest cyclist could be there for its British start.
Wiggins is a fascinating sportsman, an intriguing, complex character – as well, of course, as an outstanding practitioner of his art. It is worth recapping his record as a reminder of just how good he has been. There is that Tour title, the first by a Briton, the seven Olympic medals, level with Sir Chris Hoy as the most by a Briton. Nobody else has won the Tour and Olympic gold in the same year.
That’s how good he has been. How good is he now, and how good he may be in the next couple of years is a question rather more difficult to answer. In California it has looked like the old Wiggins, the lead man in a well-drilled Team Sky line-up. That’s the thing about Wiggins, unlike Kipling’s cat he is not actually an untameable loner at all. Wiggins is a team player in a sport which makes extraordinary demands of the team. The workers get nothing, the leader gets every-thing, such as when Wiggins, Chris Froome and Co ushered Mark Cavendish to the world title in Copenhagen three years ago.
There you have it, the F-word. It is when Froome appears that Wiggins appears to mislay his one-for-all and all-for-one hymn sheet. If Wiggins does ride the Tour – he is on Sky’s long list – then it will be in support of Froome; a super domestique maybe but still a domestique. The two men’s differences are well known. They were supposed to have been settled in December via a chat in Majorca but a couple of months ago I asked Shane Sutton, who knows Wiggins as well as anyone, whether the pair might line up alongside each other in Leeds in July.
“Do you want me to bullshit you or tell you the truth?” replied Sutton. He hopes so, but he is not at all sure. Their past is not yet packed away in the attic. It will be Froome’s call as he is now the lead man and whether he feels he can put absolute trust in Wiggins given their history remains to be seen.
Wiggins seems to want to ride the Tour, and do his graft. Two years ago the yellow-shirted Wiggins and Sky swept through Paris to set up Cavendish for a final stage win. The cake was gloriously iced, and then came the Olympic cherry on top a few days later. Wiggins sat in that throne at Hampton Court. Never mind the impending knighthood, he was lord of all.
There are comparisons here with Andy Murray’s struggles post-Wimbledon. Once you’ve climbed Everest where do you look next? Murray will get over it; he has time on his side. Wiggins doesn’t. He is 34 and no longer among the real elite. Froome has taken his place.
Since 2012, Wiggins has changed his mind about the direction he wants to take more often than a sat-nav with a personality disorder. He now says he wants to make an impact in the classics – Wiggins is a cycling classicist, he knows his sport’s history – and once again the word “track” has popped up. Is he really pondering a return to the track?
Sutton would welcome him back. Following Sir Dave Brailsford’s switch to Sky alone, Sutton runs the track squad on his own and it may well appeal to Wiggins to work once again with his long-time mentor. Sutton has suggested Britain’s pursuit team are not currently good enough to make it worth Wiggins’ while to return – there is no point him coming back to chase bronze in 2016, says Sutton. But then… Wiggins needs to find an appropriate way out and what would be a better farewell than the Rio Olympics? How about this for an exit strategy: do the hard yards in this year’s Tour, proving he can be a team man to the end, and then begin the switch via a couple of classics to his old stomping ground in Manchester and one last shot at gold as the main man in Britain’s pursuit squad, a final challenge for him and an inspiration to those alongside him. Better to stay so long as the leader he is, going for glory one final time, than slip out unnoticed in Froome’s slipstream.