Comment: Wiggins, just being Wiggins

Bradley Wiggins hit out at anonymous rumour-mongerers in his post-race press conference at Porrentruy, and gained many new admirers for his stance.

Words by Richard Moore in Besançon

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Monday July 9, 2012

When, after Sunday’s eighth stage, Bradley Wiggins was asked about those who make dark, doping-related insinuations on Twitter, he gave a long, coherent, albeit expletive-ridden, response.

Between the curses, he said the rumour-mongering “justifies their own bone-idleness because they can’t ever imagine applying themselves to do anything in their lives. It’s easy for them to sit under a pseudonym on Twitter and write that sort of shit, rather than get off their arses in their own lives and apply themselves and work hard at something and achieve something.”

He was angry, clearly, and yet it was controlled. He seemed to be getting it all off his chest, though it may prove to be crucial to his Tour prospects that this is what he was doing, rather than just winding himself up. Did he sleep soundly last night, or toss and turn and run the tape of what he’d said back and forward through his mind?

The outburst appears to have won Wiggins many new admirers. The response – especially, ironically, on Twitter – seems overwhelmingly positive. There are many who take issue with the language, but only a small number seem to be complaining about the message.

First, the anger. We might think we can understand why Wiggins would feel anger, but, since we are not in his position, I am really not sure we can. All we can do is try to imagine how we would feel if we were subject to rumours, innuendo and criticism. Nobody likes criticism. Sensitive people hate criticism.

There is a perception that athletes are strong, super-human, that they are as robust mentally as they are physically, and that criticism from social media must be like water off a duck’s back. It is a perception most try to perpetuate; it becomes part of their armoury. But the opposite might be true, especially at the Tour. As Steve Peters, the psychiatrist to Team Sky and British cycling, told me when I spoke to him for my book, Sky’s the Limit, athletes are at their most vulnerable emotionally at their biggest event.

Social media can therefore be genuinely harmful. “If someone wants to read it because it’s interesting or amusing, then put it away and it has zero effect, then fine,” said Peters. “But if someone’s going to read this stuff as a sounding gauge to where they stand, it’s very dangerous.

“I advise most athletes not to read Facebook or Twitter, or the press. Just don’t do it, because if you’re sensitive to things, particularly in the middle of a race, it’s not doing you any favours if it’s likely to upset you. What you’ve got to remember is that there are certain times when you’re vulnerable to attack emotionally. In those situations your emotions are less stable, and you let your guard down.

“When you go on holiday you’re much more vulnerable to con artists,” Peters continued. “You have these holiday romances which, in the cold light of day, are bizarre. But they happen when you have a different perspective on who you are, where you are, what you’re up to. The same applies to sports people: your mindset alters when you’re in the middle of an intense race. You’re far more vulnerable to criticism and comment; your emotions are heightened and less stable and you can suffer horrendous extremes.”

As for what Wiggins said in his press conference, rather than how he said it, some have pointed out that declaring war on the (anonymous) Twitterati did not amount to a clear, coherent anti-doping message. There is also the criticism that his comments on drugs are not quite as unambiguous as they were in the past, when, for example, he was riding the 2007 Tour for Cofidis and his Italian teammate, Cristian Moreni, tested positive for testosterone.

At that time, Wiggins was one of the ‘go-to’ guys for comments on doping questions. He was making up the numbers at the Tour — his main focus remained on the track — and he was more than happy to offer a soundbite or two on the latest drugs scandal. If journalists weren’t asking him about doping, they probably wouldn’t have been speaking to him at all.

This has been just one significant change for Wiggins. The line of questioning has changed: it isn’t about others now; it’s about him, even if indirectly. He is the hunted rather than the hunter.

I asked him about this at his training camp in Majorca in early January. After saying that he now dislikes being asked about “the controversial stuff,” I asked why. “Because I tend to always be asked about drugs and Contador and all that stuff. Six years ago I’d have freely answered those questions and it wouldn’t bother me, but I’ve kind of got a label for it. You know, ‘someone’s tested positive, let’s go and ask Brad about it.’”

So what changed? “I suppose as I’ve got more successful, I’ve almost got to the point where I don’t care about [doping] any more. Because what I’m doing is so time consuming and intense, I can’t be worrying about all that other stuff.

“I suppose when I was 26 or 27, it was a frustration for me. I felt like if the doping wasn’t going on I could break through. I felt that was the difference, and I could be winning stages and things. It was a frustration and an anger around that time. But the last few years I’ve gone from strength to strength and really developed, and I feel I’ve moved on and that frustration has gone, to some extent.

“You know, I don’t care about it any more. About that side of things. Because I’m alright. I’m doing alright. And I suppose it’s a case of, pull the ladder up Jack and sod the rest, you know? I’m doing alright so I’m not going to worry about who’s tested positive.”

As Wiggins perceives it, it is no longer the difference between losing and winning. So doping — in his experience — is not the game-changer it once was. It won’t be a response that satisfies everyone, or answers everyone’s questions. He will be asked about doping again. And it will be interesting to see how he responds.

Back in January, I asked him why he sometimes seemed so uncomfortable with the media. One of the problems, said Wiggins, was that he struggled to stay on-message, or to say what he thought people wanted him to say, if he thought something else. “I’ve always struggled with people who…rehearsed stuff,” he said. “I can’t do that. I’d rather stay honest, then there’s no bullshit.”

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