Our greatest-ever Olympian? Bradley Wiggins is even bigger than that

His achievements are staggering – and he has transformed our sporting landscape

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Arguments are already under way over whether Bradley Wiggins is now Britain's greatest-ever Olympian by dint of his seven medals to Steve Redgrave's six. But not in doubt is that what he has achieved in 2012 is unprecedented, staggering, and has transformed the sporting landscape.

In six months, Wiggins has gone from the biggest fish in the relatively small pond of cycling to a figure who looms vast in the national consciousness, currently enjoying fame on an almost Beckhamesque level, and for many people embodying the very best of British in the egalitarian, metropolitan, post-Danny Boyle sense.

The Henry VIII throne Wiggins sat in at Hampton Court yesterday after he had added Olympic gold to his Tour de France victory could not have been more inappropriate. Like Beckham, a central facet of Wiggins's appeal is that he is a natural stylist who still, at some level, has remained one of us.

In part that's because cycling is a great leveller. It's a sport, as Wiggins showed in the Tour, where you can be a star one day and a humble worker the next. Wiggins' very London brand of street wisdom, which manifests itself in the driest of wits and the most ironic of outlooks, is hugely endearing, and if anyone can survive this onslaught of celebrity you'd back Wiggins to do so.

Offers and demands will be pouring in, but Wiggins desperately needs a break. His pre-Tour victories in 2012 – Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie, the Dauphiné Libéré – would have constituted a remarkable year even without what followed. To go on to win the Tour de France and then pulverise the time-trial opposition to secure his gold yesterday – after the effort he expended in supporting Mark Cavendish in Saturday's road race – might just add up to the most remarkable sequence of athletic feats in British sporting history.

His career now is at a crossroads. "It's never going to be better," he said yesterday. "There was a slight melancholy on the podium. Nothing will top that now." He didn't rule out competing at Rio in 2016, but on the track rather than on the road, and at 32, there are signs that his willingness to suffer the sacrifices needed to maintain such a level of intensity may be limited.

Interviewed on TV on Tuesday, he shook his head almost in disbelief at what he had put himself and his wife and two children through this year. "It really isn't conducive to family life," he said, adding that there was no way he would be doing a Lance Armstrong and winning six more Tours. There was a clear implication that you would have to be mad to do such a thing, and Wiggins is a man who values his sanity. Hanging on to it will be a priority.