Bradley Wiggins: A British cyclist winning the Tour de France? How is this possible?

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Simon O’Hagan pays tribute to the Kilburn boy whose historic, once unimaginable, exploits on the roads of France have had an extraordinary effect in his homeland

Who knows what stirring deeds will be performed by British sportsmen and women at the forthcoming Olympic Games but it is hard to see how anything can match what Bradley Wiggins has achieved on the high pastures, rustic back roads and handsome boulevards of France (plus a little bit of Belgium and Switzerland) these past three weeks.

In the year of London 2012, a man from the heart of the host city has written his name into British sporting legend - doing something that was, until very recently, simply unimaginable.

There are those who think that England will never again win the football World Cup, but at least we did it once. But a British cyclist winning the Tour de France? How could this be possible? The race has been going since 1903, and until Wiggins came along, the closest was Robert Millar's fourth in the 1980s.

It wasn't just that other countries had mountains and we did not. There was a huge cultural barrier to be overcome. Historically, British cycling has revolved around time-trialling and riding on the track - not stage races. The necessity of emigrating to the Continent and learning the local ways contributed to British riders' outsider status. The sport "belonged" to France and other (mainly) European nations in a way that it never has in Britain.

The temptation is there to write "Until now" because clearly the Bradley Effect is profound, his impact on the wider consciousness extraordinary. Mods have been revived, bikes dusted off, a media frenzy unleashed.

There's already been one cycling revolution in the UK these past 15 years or so. It's happened at the recreational level, and it's happened at the professional level. But are we on the brink of a second, Wiggins-inspired, and even more dramatic cycling revolution? Is the sport about to become truly embedded into the national psyche and our way of life? Ubiquitous on our streets, talked about in bars, as British as Bruce Forsyth? Its time truly seems to have come, but we shall see.

Wiggins himself instantly joins the pantheon of British sporting immortals – shove up now Len Hutton, Bobby Charlton, Graham Hill, Henry Cooper, Steve Redgrave – and for those of us who have followed his career from the outset, this is a pinch-yourself moment.

I met him when, as a 22-year-old in 2002, he rode in a relatively minor pro race late in the season that passed close to where I was on holiday with my family in France. We went to the start town and mingled with the riders. The event was small enough that you could do that, and anyway cycling has always been a sport where participant and public can get close, which is one of the best things about it.

Bradley stepped out of the team bus - at the time he rode for Francaise des Jeux - and we chatted for a few minutes. It turned out that where he had grown up in Kilburn in north London – about as unpromising an environment for a future pro cyclist as you could get - was a half a mile from where we lived, and he enjoyed talking of home. But he wasn't homesick.

Even as a young man it was obvious he had the gift of being able to take things in his stride. He knew where he was going. He was droll and relaxed but focused. He autographed a couple of FdJ postcards of himself for my daughters and I hope they’ve still got them.

Until now, all talk of Britain and the Tour de France has eventually and inevitably come back to the tragic death of Tom Simpson during the 1967 race. Not the least of the joys of Wiggins’s triumph is that finally, 45 years on, that episode can be relegated, if not to a footnote then at least to a lesser role in the annals. With Bradley Wiggins – no doubt Sir Bradley before too long – a slice of British sporting history has been written that simply glows from the page. And Wiggins's worthiness as a champion is enhanced by his respect for and knowledge of the sport and its heroes from previous eras.

To be great is great, but to be first – well that’s something else. British cycling has its Edmund Hillary, its Roger Bannister, its Neil Armstrong. Brad, we salute you.

 

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Rise of a champion: Wiggins factfile

1980 Born 28 April, Ghent, Belgium, before growing up in London.

1992 Begins track cycling at Herne Hill Velodrome, London.

1997 Wins individual pursuit gold at Junior World Track Championships in Cuba.

2000 Takes silver in team pursuit at Track Cycling World Championships in Manchester before winning bronze in team pursuit at the Olympic Games in Sydney.

2001 Silver in team pursuit at Track World Championships in Belgium.

2002 Earns silver for England in team and individual pursuit at Commonwealth Games in Manchester. Gold in individual pursuit at Track World Championships in Germany.

2003 Silver in team pursuit at Track World Championships in Germany.

2004 Wins Olympic gold in individual pursuit in Athens, team pursuit silver and Madison bronze – first Briton since 1964 to win three medals at a Games.

2006 Tour de France debut, riding for French team Cofidis.

2007 Wins gold in individual and team pursuit at Track World Championships in Majorca. Finishes fourth in Tour de France prologue in London but Cofidis withdraw after a team-mate fails a drugs test. Takes Individual pursuit gold at Track World Championships in Manchester.

2008 Wiggins wins individual pursuit, team pursuit and Madison gold at Track World Championships in Manchester. Retains Olympic individual pursuit title; wins team pursuit gold.

2009 Secures fourth place in Tour de France, matching highest-ever placing by a British rider. Wins stage five time trial and overall title at Jayco Herald Sun Tour in Australia. 2010 Joins Dave Brailsford's Team Sky; wins Giro d'Italia prologue to become second Briton to wear race leader's pink jersey. The victory gives Sky a grand tour stage win at the first attempt. Finishes 24th on Team Sky's Tour de France debut.

2011 Wins British Championships road race but abandons Tour de France after fracturing collarbone in crash. Finishes second in World Championships time trial before helping Mark Cavendish to win the road race.

2012 Wins Paris-Nice overall, completing victory with win on stage eight. Triumphs in Tour de Romandie, winning stages one and five.

Successfully defends Critérium du Dauphiné title. Takes Tour de France yellow jersey after stage seven.

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