In 1992 Bradley Wiggins was a mischievous 12-year-old who was beginning to hang out on street corners with the wrong sort of crowd. Then he watched on TV as Chris Boardman won cycling gold at the Barcelona Olympics and realised "that was what I wanted to do".
Countless numbers of sports-mad youngsters discover a hero and nurture such dreams. Very rarely does the reality work out quite like it has in the case of Wiggins, who has not only grown up to become Britain's best young cyclist and a rising star in one of the most prestigious teams on the Continent but also finds himself in what he calls the "amazing" position of working closely with the man who was his inspiration all those years ago.
Since his last competitive race, in 2000, Boardman has deliberately kept away from cycling. "I needed a break, and my family needed a break," he says. Now, at 34, he is back, and the 22-year-old Wiggins is one of the main reasons.
The two have got together as part of a scheme set up by the British Cycling Federation which gives Boardman a role as mentor to Wiggins and the handful of other British cyclists who are on the federation's world-class performance programme. In this context, mentor means something quite separate from coach or manager.
"It's really all about talking to Bradley, helping him to focus on his goals, getting him to ask himself questions about how he can achieve them," Boardman says. "I've always said that it was getting the best out of myself mentally was what made the difference in my career. It's that side of things that I'm concentrating on with Bradley."
Physically, the two men could hardly be more dissimilar. Boardman is a slightly built 5ft 9in. Wiggins' gangling frame unfolds to 6ft 3in. But in other respects, Wiggins is shadowing Boardman with every turn of the wheel. "What's interesting is that Bradley's abilities are very similar to mine," says Boardman. "He's already very self-aware, and without that you are not going to get anywhere."
For Wiggins, sitting down with Boardman is important because "basically I'm trying to achieve exactly what he achieved, so I've got complete confidence in whatever he has to tell me."
Like Boardman, Wiggins is a track specialist with his sights set on winning Olympic gold next year in the pursuit, the same event that Boardman won in Barcelona. And like Boardman, Wiggins is attempting to combine racing on the track with a career on the road. Boardman won three Tour de France prologues, and Wiggins, says Boardman, has it in him to go even better. With so much time on his side, Wiggins thinks it's possible he might one day win the whole race. "Why not? Ten years ago you wouldn't have put Lance Armstrong down as a potential Tour winner."
In some ways Wiggins was born to cycle, in others he has defied the odds. He is the son of Gary Wiggins, a hard-living Australian who was something of a legend in track cycling in the 1970s, so the genes are all in place. But Wiggins senior and Bradley's mother Linda split up when Bradley was only three, and there was no more contact between father and son for 14 years.
Meanwhile Bradley was growing up in a flat in Maida Vale, west London, a traffic-filled environment not exactly conducive to riding a bike. Indeed, Bradley was turning into a decent footballer - he had junior trials at West Ham - when the Boardman moment came along. Encouraged by his mother and step-father, and with the knowledge of what Gary Wiggins had achieved, Bradley took up cycling and never looked back. "I wanted to do something with my life," he says.
In 1998, aged 18, Wiggins won the world junior pursuit title, a silver medal in the Commonwealth Games team pursuit and a bronze in the individual pursuit. He was a bronze medallist in the team pursuit at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and has won six more medals - though not yet gold - at other major championships. It's a remarkable record in a sport where competitors do not generally reach their peak until their late 20s. "Bradley's got a big engine," says Simon Jones, the British Cycling Federation's national coach. "He's also ambitious to the point of being obsessive."
Off the bike, that somehow translates into an easy-going thoughtfulness well beyond Wiggins' years. A gifted mimic and devotee of old British films - Michael Caine films especially - Wiggins clearly has a capacity to be his own person that is rare among young sportsmen. With a feeling for cycling's traditions, Wiggins says he loves the buzz of competing in a packed velodrome or in big road races on the Continent. He has become a favourite in the series of indoor six-day races that mark the cycling winter.
Now the outdoor season beckons, which means the start of his second year with the leading French team fdjeux.com, where the presence of three Australians - Bradley McGee, Baden Cooke and Matthew Wilson - has helped the home- loving Wiggins overcome the culture shock involved in living the French life. And although Wiggins will not be riding in the centenary Tour de France - he is still too young and inexperienced - he expects to be given his first crack at a three-week race in the Giro d'Italia in May. His first big race of the season will be Paris-Nice, starting in a fortnight.
"Potentially," says Boardman, "Bradley's got it all." The question is, can Boardman help him realise that potential?
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