Bradley Wiggins was 10-years-old when he and some fellow rapscallions from the Carlton Vale estate in Kilburn cheekily rapped on Gary Lineker's door in Abbey Gardens, St John's Wood, only half a mile away but emphatically on the other side of the tracks. The last time they'd stalked Lineker, who then played for Tottenham Hotspur, he'd obligingly appeared, returning home from the shops with a couple of pints of milk. This time he wasn't in. But his wife Michelle answered, and gave them one from a stack of signed photographs she kept by the door for such occasions. Wiggins and his friends went away happy.
It was to be 14 more years before Wiggins set eyes on Lineker again, at the 2004 BBC Sports Personality of the Year contest, in studio one at Television Centre. Wiggins had won three cycling medals – gold, silver and bronze – at the Olympic Games in Athens that summer, the biggest haul by a British athlete in a single Games since Mary Rand, 40 years earlier in Tokyo. In studio one he was duly seated near the front with his wife Cath, and told to prepare for an interview. But shortly before the show started, a producer came over and told him that the running-order had changed, requiring him to move to another seat, and Cath to retire to the very back of the auditorium. The interview was scrapped, and there was just a fleeting clip of his exploits which, with an ill-timed blink, was easily missed.
"I'd been in the audience four years earlier after winning bronze in Sydney and thought 'I can't wait to win gold, I'll get a proper mention here'," he says now. "And when I won three medals I thought I might actually be in with a remote shout of winning the thing. But there wasn't even a mention of me being the first athlete to win three medals since whenever, though they found time to do a 10-minute feature on Red Rum [who'd died in 1995]. I thought 'OK, now I know where I stand. Behind a dead horse'."
With his Olympic medal haul now standing at six, and having won two more golds in Beijing, Wiggins feels hopeful that he might get a little more of the limelight at this year's show, which takes place in Liverpool next month. Who knows, maybe it will be Lineker who sticks a microphone under his nose, which would complete the circle nicely.
Whatever, his story of that snub four years ago tells us as much about the chippiness of Wiggins (below) as it does about the insensitivity of the BBC. He is, by his own admission, not the most serene of characters. There have been a few unsettled demons inherited from his estranged, hell-raising father, which is a little worrying, because the tumultuous life of Garry Wiggins – who as a professional cyclist had once got pretty close himself to the summit of the sport – ended in January this year in hospital in his native Australia, a few hours after he had been found unconscious in the street, in Aberdeen, New South Wales, with head injuries. Aged 55, he had effectively been beaten to death.
It was a hell of a way for Wiggins to start an Olympic year, and it is the story with which he began his autobiography, In Pursuit of Glory. To publicise the book he meets me in a plush lounge at the Covent Garden Hotel, in central London. I start by congratulating him – and it is no idle flattery – on producing a book that is gripping even for those of us who do not count cycling among our favourite sports.
"Yeah, thanks," he says. "People wave money at you, and you say 'alright, I'll do it, but I don't want to talk about that, or that... ' and they say 'if you don't, you haven't got a story'. Which is right. You can't dodge the issues. A lot of sports books out there are just crap, especially the footballers' stuff. I read Rio Ferdinand's book, but after a while I'm like, 'hang on a minute, where's the story?'"
There's no danger of that with In Pursuit of Glory: the Wiggins story began when he was still in nappies, in which his father smuggled amphetamine tablets through customs. Wiggins condemns the old man for plenty – not least for abandoning him and his mother – but not for taking drugs. "It started when he got to Belgium [in 1979 Garry moved to the cycling enclave of Ghent], and there was so much pressure to make a living. At that time, in the post-Tommy Simpson era, a lot of riders were doing it. It's easy now to go along with anti-doping feeling, but back then they felt they had to do it to keep up with everyone else."
I ask Wiggins whether anyone has ever put pressure on him to enhance his performances illicitly? "No. I turned pro in 2002 and the team I went into was very anti-doping. But five years earlier I would have been right in the mix of it all, and peer pressure might have made it hard to say no. I'm not going to say that I would never have made bad decisions. I was 21, living on my own in France, with nobody to share the problem with if someone had approached me. Luckily I've never had to take that decision. I've always been surrounded by riders who've thought 'we can do this clean'."
The rigour of the testing procedures now make it nigh-on impossible for a British cyclist to cheat the system, he adds, although in many other countries the system is more open to abuse. "And certain other sports are just as bad, if not worse," he says. Oh yeah, which ones? A glimmer of a smile. "I wouldn't like to say."
Can he look at a cyclist, as the Olympic sprinters once looked at Ben Johnson, and know that he is doped to the eyeballs? "Not really. It's performance that tells you. It's a shame that in some sports you can't do something great without that suspicion, but look at [Riccardo] Ricco on the Tour this year. He'd won two stages and almost rode away from the whole field on the last climb. For a 22-year-old, who'd also had a failed test as an amateur, that was pretty suspicious. This year's Tour had a much more believable winner in [Carlos] Sastre."
Wiggins is himself planning another assault on the Tour de France. The track is where he has excelled, but he is determined to prosper on the road, and that is where he will focus his efforts in 2009, encouraged by a decent show in this year's Tour, in which he led a stage, at one point by 17 minutes, to within a few kilometres of the finish. Yet how can he adapt from the four minutes or so it takes to complete an individual pursuit on the track to the seven-hour slog required on the Tour de France?
"Because pursuit is still an engine thing," he says. "Someone like Chris Hoy would never be able to do the Tour because he's sprint-orientated. It would be like Usain Bolt running the marathon, whereas I'm more your Seb Coe. Not that he would have won the marathon but you could imagine him being competitive. So although the track is where my heart is, the road complements it, and I'd love to get the yellow [jersey] for one day at least. I don't want to be just another number in the peloton."
It seems clear from his book that he was destined never to be "just another number" in any department of life. Which is not to say that it has been a gilded existence, far from it. Indeed, the demons have sometimes struck even in times of triumph, for instance after the 2004 Olympics, when he used alcohol to keep himself on cloud nine. "By January 2005 all the post-Olympic parties had died down," he recalls. "But I was the last man standing. I'd achieved the biggest thing I ever wanted, but I was still living off that, and I kind of knew I was. And Cath was pregnant and reading baby books all the time, so she'd just say 'go out and enjoy yourself, you've deserved it'. Then she went into hospital with pre-eclampsia and that became my focus. I stopped drinking completely, but I didn't want to be on my bike either. I raced, but I gave the bare minimum, until Steve Peters [a psychiatrist seconded to the British cycling squad] sat me down and said 'look Brad, you can't go on like this'. Was it also the example of his father that pulled him back from the brink? "Maybe, because my problems only started when I tried to make a relationship with him in my late teens. But I knew I wasn't the same as him. I've never had his aggression, and I've always valued family – my mum, and now Cath and the [two] kids – as the most important thing in my life. But I have probably inherited his addictive streak."
At various stages in his life his addictions, or at any rate powerful enthusiasms, have rather eclectically included alcohol, guitars and boxing memorabilia. I ask him which boxers he most admires? "Ken Norton and Larry Holmes," he says, somewhat surprisingly. "I sway towards those with amazing talent who were never truly given the accolades they deserved, probably because I know what that feels like. That's why I always sway towards the bass players in bands. No-one looks at the bass player. My hero was always John Entwhistle in The Who. Just a phenomenal talent, but nobody looked at him. The cameras were always on Keith Moon, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend. It's the same in sport. At the Olympics the media talked about the pursuit team [left] led by Wiggins, but Geraint Thomas was by far the strongest rider in that race. It was like Steve Redgrave in Sydney. The coverage was all about him but [Matt] Pinsent was much stronger, apparently."
Wiggins is swift to add his admiration for Redgrave, although typically, it has a competitive edge; he yearns to equal the great man's medal haul. "I can't wait for London," he says. "I'm still quite far ahead of the rest of the world in individual pursuit and as long as I plug away, that's a big gap to close. But I know that it will be really hard to pull the plug. I'll be 32 in London but if I get to the top rostrum again, I'll want to try again in 2016, although probably not in the individual by then."
Wiggins takes a slug of coffee; double espresso, of course. "Finding something that feeds the hunger and drive when you stop is the hardest thing. That's why James Cracknell has done those mad challenges. It's his way of feeding the competitive urge, the need to keep training on a daily basis."
Could a coaching role not fulfil those needs, I ask? "Not for me, because I'd have this fear of not being good enough. I'd want to be the best coach in the world. Like, I hated seeing the stick Stuart Pearce got at Man City because when I was a kid he'd been this working-class hero. Everyone says [Alan] Shearer will end up managing Newcastle, but I'm thinking 'don't ruin the legend'."
I have one last question for this cyclist supreme. Where does he keep his Olympic medals? He laughs.
"I have the two golds from Beijing in a sock upstairs in my room. They're funny things, medals. It will be nice to leave them to my kids when I die, but I don't really know what to do with them. It's titles that matter more to me. They're what give me the self-esteem."
It's a good job he doesn't depend on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year contest for his self-esteem. Betfair currently quote him at 999-1, which is another small outrage in the fascinating life of Wiggins.
In Pursuit of Glory, by Bradley Wiggins (Orion, £18.99).
Wiggins: by numbers
The year Bradley Wiggins made his Great Britain debut
The number of gold medals Wiggins won at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Wiggins became the first British athlete in 40 years to win three medals in one Olympic Games in 2004. The last athlete was Mary Rand in 1964.
The number of seconds Wiggin's British team beat their Danish competitors by to win gold at the 2008 Olympics.
The total number of Olympic medals the cyclist has won.
Wiggins's winning time in the Men's 4000m individual pursuit at the 2008 Olympics.
The age Wiggins will be at the 2012 London Olympics.
The Olympic record Wiggins holds for the Men's 4000m individual pursuit.Reuse content