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To begin, a confession. Last month I was stopped at traffic lights while out on a ride. I looked to my right and a tall man with a beard wearing a beanie and sunglasses stepped out of a coffee shop. He looked familiar, and he noticed some random cyclist staring at him. I realised it was Bradley Wiggins, and that Bradley Wiggins had caught me staring at him. I nodded a hello to him and he nodded back, before slipping away unnoticed down the South London high street we were on, both left to carry on with our lives.
A couple of weeks later I was in a cafe with my girlfriend in that same South London town when Bradley Wiggins walked past the window. “Bradley Wiggins has just walked past,” I gasped. She barely turned her head. I would like to point out at this juncture that I am not stalking Bradley Wiggins.
That, unfortunately, sums up the esteem with which the general British population hold their first-ever Tour de France champion and five-time Olympic gold medallist. It also explains how he now manages to sit in a Costa Coffee at what looks to be an airport or train station for 40 minutes without interruption as he talks about Tadej Pogačar and other things his fellow customers likely have zero knowledge of.
It was always likely to be borderline tumultuous for the 41-year-old after calling time on his career in 2016. It’s now ten years on from the highs of the yellow jersey and Olympic gold on home soil in 2012, during which time he’s tried to become an Olympic rower, considered becoming a social worker, disavowed his cycling career, and starred in a podcast that receives millions of downloads. Through it all, there is an enduring passion for cycling.
He speaks fondly of one of his new-ish roles of being a motorbike reporter during the biggest bike races for Eurosport, “the closest I will be to still being in the peloton,” he says, and how taken aback he is when the likes of his “hero” Wout van Aert come up and say hello to him. The other day he was with his son Ben, who is beginning to make his own way in the world of cycling, who asked his dad to name every Paris-Roubaix winner in history, which he did because, and I quote, “of how much of a pervert” he is for cycling.
Beneath the humour and self-deprecation is a true and deep love for a sport that has given him everything and at times threatened to take it all away. But this interview session isn’t for a deep dive into Bradley Wiggins’ soul, it’s to discuss the much more manageable task of the upcoming cycling season.
Reporters have gathered from almost every cycling nation and want to know his opinion on everything: Gent-Wevelgem winner Biniam Girmay, Slovakia’s Peter Sagan, Italy’s Filippo Ganna, even Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen. The big topic of conversation, of course, is Tadej Pogačar and how his former Team Sky, now Ineos Grenadiers, can even face going into another season where the Slovenian appears unbeatable, especially at their coveted Tour de France.
“At Sky, we rode to my strengths. Had we done that, I think Pogačar would have attacked over the top and made it very difficult for us,” Wiggins says on the video call. “It would’ve been very difficult to challenge him and the other thing that we could have done, and I’m surprised Dave hasn’t done, is throw a load of money at him. Buy him, and send him to the Giro d’Italia.”
After a decade of marginal gains, this appears to be a new, maximal one.
“It’s very difficult and whatever plan you come to you can’t trump talent with money, and as Pogačar has proved when the road goes uphill his extremities as an athlete are so special. We say these riders come along once in a generation but there seems to be a lot in this generation.”
Wiggins goes on to talk about the obvious talents his former team has, Pidcock being one but also Richard Carapaz, who could offer glimmers of hope. But, that Ineos really need to tear up the rulebook that helped them dominate the Tour in the 2010s and double down on the promise they made last year to ditch the infamous ‘Sky train’ and deliver unrelenting attacking racing. Despite their best efforts that has rarely been enough, however, and Wiggins believes the writing is pretty much on the wall for anyone not wearing a UAE Team Emirates jersey.
“I can’t see anyone, and as much as I’d like Geraint to win a second Tour, with the momentum [Pogacar’s] gaining with two Tour wins and dominance,” Wiggins admits. “Other than a crash you can’t see anyone dismantling him other than Roglič. I can’t see Ineos, other than Pidcock if he wants to throw his name in, if he wants to go down that road.”
How does Wiggins feel he would have fared if he’d had the unfortunate fate of lining up against Pogačar when the Brit was at the height of his powers?
“I might have struggled,” he acknowledges.
“He is a great time trialist and he would have out-climbed me. He’s got that youthful exuberance where he’s got that naivety around him where does not really realize what he’s achieving.
“He’s willing to take risks and attack far from the finish and by the time I won the Tour de France, I was past that. I was becoming a bit of an old git and I had to be calculating and measure my efforts.”
Old git or not, Wiggins is a character the cycling world is fortunate to have, even if the motorbike he’ll be on the back of at this summer’s Tour will likely be the only two-wheeled machine with a chance of keeping up with the ravenous Slovenian boy king.
Wiggins is a Discovery Cycling Expert for Discovery and GCN+, and is speaking at “Discovery’s Year of Cycling Launch.” Watch live racing and original cycling documentaries on GCN+.