Tour de France: The making of Bradley Wiggins
Sam Wallace talks to those who have helped the cyclist rise from cheeky London lad to the best in the world
Walk south down Kilburn High Road to the point where it becomes Maida Vale and on the west side of the street you see Dibdin House, a tidy five-storey block of flats built in the 1930s. On one of north London's great roads, that takes you all the way down to Marble Arch through a range of neighbourhoods; past pubs, shops, posh houses, tatty flats and innumerable fried chicken outlets, Dibdin House does not stand out. It is, however, the childhood home of a man about to take his place among the all-time greats of British sport. It is where Bradley Wiggins, 32, the man who stands on the brink of being the first Briton to win the Tour de France, would ride his bike as a child and dream of being a champion.
The area around Dibdin House is classic London: old-money St John's Wood to the east, salubrious Little Venice to the west, but dotted everywhere are the low-cost tower blocks thrown up by local authorities after the war. Stand on Maida Vale, with the traffic rushing past in both directions, and try to imagine a Tour winner starting his journey here. The scale of Wiggins' achievement starts to kick in.
They breed them tough in Kilburn. As a teenager, Wiggins would ride his bike the eight miles to Herne Hill velodrome through central London or to other meets. At 12, he was hit by a car in Shepherd's Bush and broke his collar bone. One of his coaches at Herne Hill, Colin Denman, recalls the time the young Wiggins had his wrist broken when the tarpaulin on a skip truck he was following broke loose and hit him.
His former PE teacher at St Augustine's CE High School in Kilburn, Graham Hatch, remembers a boy who played in goal for his school football teams and relentlessly pursued a cycling career in his spare time. "He had drive and ambition," Hatch says, "to come from inner-city London and get where he is now and achieve what he has, you have to be very motivated and have family support."
The key themes of Wiggins' past are documented in his excellent 2008 autobiography In Pursuit of Glory in which he tells the sad story of his Australian biological father Garry who abandoned Wiggins' mother Linda when Wiggins was just two. Garry had been a talented rider who had come to Europe to compete on the Six Day circuit and peaked in the mid-1980s with a European Madison title before a long and painful decline.
In his son's words, Garry was "a car crash as a partner and a parent", a heavy drinker notorious in cycling for settling disputes with his fists. His end was just as violent. Garry was found badly beaten and unconscious in 2008 in the town of Aberdeen in New South Wales and later died in hospital just six months before Bradley won the second and third Olympic gold medals of his career at the Beijing Games that year.
Although Wiggins is now based in the town of Eccleston in Lancashire and has two children himself, the connection to Kilburn continues. Linda still lives in Dibdin House and works as a secretary in St Augustine's primary school. Wiggins' half-brother Ryan is a teaching assistant at the senior school and now works alongside Mr Hatch, the teacher who first encouraged the teenage cycling prodigy.
Linda and Ryan were not for talking about the most famous member of their family this week but Hatch, who has taught at St Augustine's since 1978, remembered a boy who had no flair for the academic side of school life but was "focused and exacting" in sport. He was part of the school football teams that played in the competitive West London League while cycling was his true passion.
"When we had parents' evenings, he and his mum would come over to me first for a report in PE and get some positives before they went off to hear the news from elsewhere," Hatch told The Independent. "He was not academic and he would be the first to say that. But what Bradley had was drive from an early age, you can see that from the fact that he lived in Kilburn but would go all the way down to Herne Hill to train.
"Part of the problem living in an inner city – and people don't realise this – is that there aren't many local sports teams, not even football. It's fine if you live further out but it's really hard if you are in central London, unless your parents are really motivated and want to get you out to places to do sport. His family were able to do that for him."
In Wiggins' autobiography, he remembers his first experience of organised track cycling taking place on a then-unused part of the Hayes bypass and it was from there that he was referred to Herne Hill. There, Denman remembers him being introduced as "the son of Garry Wiggins" despite the fact that by then, unbeknownst to the coaches, Bradley had not seen his father for around a decade and scarcely knew him.
Denman, now 67, remembers Wiggins as a "very skinny, regular young lad" who "still has the same skinny legs now". He did not stand out from the crowd until he became a junior rider (ages 16 to 19) and won his first junior world title at the age of 18 at the 1998 championships in Cuba in the individual pursuit.
"He was a bit more outrageous in those days," Denman says. "At one time I can remember taking him as part of a group on a trip to the Six Nations events around Europe. We were in Wales on one occasion and the hotel manager came up to me in the bar and said: 'One of your lads is doing moonies out the window.' That was Bradley. He was that sort of lad!
"He used to take the mickey out of everyone. He was a bit of a character. He used to mimic people's voices and he was very good at it. As for the cycling, when he got to the junior stage the talent really shone through. He was simply a very good bike rider by then... he always used to say that he would be a world champion."
Denman knew Garry too – "a brilliant rider but he wasn't a nice man". Bradley was treading a different path. After his victory in Cuba, Wiggins was on a new level. Lottery funding was flooding into British sport and with his successes he was awarded a full £20,000 Category A annual grant as he began laying the preparations for his first Olympics in Sydney in 2000.
The former European pro rider John Herety was the national team manager with British cycling for much of the previous decade, now team manager for Rapha Condor Sharp, and he was there when Wiggins made his first impact on the road, winning the Cinturon in Majorca in 2001. "We took a track team there for the experience and not expecting to do well," Herety told The Independent. "Brad won the race. Simple as that.
"He was a great character. As a kid he didn't watch children's videos, he grew up watching cycling events on video. There were the city centre race series called the Kellogg's Criterium and he used to watch those. His party trick was that he could remember the brand of shoes each rider wore, their kit and when they changed it. I could ask him what shoes I was wearing in, say, the Cardiff race of the 1986 series and he would be able to tell me.
"When Brad started there was no World Class Performance Programme [in British cycling]. The system wasn't in place and yet he was still a world junior champion. After that he was the right age to take advantage of it when it kicked in [at the start of the last decade] but he was already a class act by then. That sort of thing is in people. He was a gifted athlete who managed to find the right people to help him at the right time. He was astute."
Herety remembers a young cyclist who was "wild" at times and could let himself go over the winter, especially where alcohol was concerned, a pattern that Wiggins repeated after his gold and silver Olympic medals in Athens in 2004. That has changed now and if/when he wins in Paris tomorrow he will cement his status as a sporting celebrity in the cycling-obsessed nations of Europe. In Maida Vale, he will probably turn a few more heads but is still unlikely to get mobbed.
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