On a wet and miserable Thursday night recently I found myself safely tucked up in a local bar and chatting all things cycling with the genial @MattyDeighton. We talked favourite riders and races, mused on Vincenzo Nibali riding through the snow and Chris Horner’s male pattern baldness, and, as the night progressed and the beer flowed, we discussed grand plans for epic rides across France and all but set up a cycling holiday company in the southern French Alps (in a loose, alcohol fuelled kind of way).
But the thing you need to know about @MattyDeighton is that he is a great barometer for all things Bradley Wiggins. He is tall, skinny, prominent in the nose department, and has the most tremendous set of sideburns; to put it bluntly, across a crowded room you could easily mistake him for Sir Brad. He also works with the Great British public, and so their reaction to him say’s a lot about their current feelings towards our 2012 Tour de France winner.
For some time my friend the Wiggins look-a-like was on the receiving end of a steady stream of good-natured jokes and jibes about sideburns and knighthoods, but things have now gone quiet on that front. The banter now comes only from cycling fans, and close friends and family, who maintain this local version of Wiggo-mania only because they know how much Matty enjoys it.
So as we sat and drank real ale on this wet winter’s evening, talk naturally came around to Wiggins, on whom opinion among cycling fans seems to be divided. It’s fair to say there was something of a backlash in 2013, which grew following his abandonment of the Giro d’Italia and a non-start at the Tour de France. He was accused of lacking fitness, the stomach for the fight, or the required levels of team spirit to support his heir apparent Chris Froome at the Tour. There was also the odd PR gaff and there were public utterances which sometimes caused embarrassment and occasionally, offence.
But a recent interview in The Times newspaper, after a year of less than favourable press coverage, presented our man in a mature and thoughtful light. Wiggins talked about the difficulties of adjusting to becoming the most famous man in the country, of going through the motions on the bike in early 2013, and of the bullying faced by his children at school in the wake of the Lance Armstrong fall-out, as classmates suggested their dad must be on drugs just like Lance. He’s a lucky man to get to do what he does for a living, but it would take a heart of stone not to also have some sympathy when reading about all that comes with it.
But in 2013 there was also, lest we forget, overall victory at the Tour of Britain, and a silver medal in a thrilling world championship time trial, where he beat Fabian Cancellara and narrowly lost to German Tony Martin.
As seasons go it was far from a write off, and judging by the general public’s reaction to my friend and Wiggins double @MattyDeighton there is plenty of warmth still there towards the Team Sky man, despite the usual bout of that traditional British sport of build-em-up-and-knock-em-down.
If 2012 was his masterpiece, and 2013 was his difficult second album, could it be that 2014 is the year when, having come to terms with the fame, the attention, and the demands on his time, we see a return to form for cycling’s Knight of the realm.
There is talk of fresh motivation, of the hatchet being buried between himself and Chris Froome, and targets for the season ahead including Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of California, and a supporting role at the Tour de France. There are also hints that after this year he may return to the track to prepare for the 2016 Olympics.
If this is to be Wiggo’s final year on the road, we should enjoy him while it lasts. Whatever your views on him as a cyclist the sport will be a quieter and slighter duller place without his honesty, larking around, and occasional rants (not to mention the suits, the sideburns, the beard and the general mod mentality).
For all those who are terminally bored of sportspeople who have been media trained to within an inch of their lives – afraid to express any view which hasn’t been given the all-clear by the press officer – Wiggo is still the antidote.