It’s probably safe to talk about the retirement of Sir Bradley Wiggins. Safe at least in as much as I think he’s actually retired.
He’s been one of the most retiring cyclists ever — in the months and years before the announcement that came in the midst of the Christmas holidays, we’d had the final Olympics, the final Six-Day in Ghent, the final (and, although after years of speculation on the subject it didn’t feel like it, the first) Hour Record, the final ride for Sky, the final Grand Tour, and the final Tour de France.
He seems to have finally decided that he might as well jump. So as Sir Brad heads off to the world of celebrity winter sports and slides into retirement sideways and two-thirds out of control, we might take a jiffy to look at how he leaves us.
The last six months of his career were full of contentious TUEs, mysterious packages and sketchily answered questions; at the time of writing there is still an ongoing investigation.
What’s clear, though, is that at this point the saga of Schrödinger’s padded envelope has had very little impact on Wiggins’s public persona. People who adored him adore him as they always have; those who didn’t much like him still don’t.
Most of the attention has ended up on Team Sky rather than on the rider himself.
There is an odd sense in which Wiggins’s career feels like less than the sum of its parts. Tour winner. World champion on the road and many times on the track.
More Olympic medals than any other UK athlete. World Hour Record holder. His palmarès is on an epic scale — there is almost no one else who has won the spectrum of events Wiggins has, or shown such an ability to morph from one sort of rider to another.
Track to Tour and back
The downside if you’re a cycling fan is that he was always moving on. Fans pay more attention to dominance of one event.
They like best the relationship they have with someone who wins the same thing over and over, because it goes through some very satisfying stages: first the rejoicing at a new winner, then the respect for someone who proves it’s not a fluke.
Next comes a resentment that it’s all getting boring, followed by the delicious fragility of an ageing champion as the cracks begin to show.
When the rider finally crumbles, they can celebrate a great career and know that they loved them all along.
Wiggins denied us this by switching from track to road, to track to road, to the Tour, to the Giro, back to the track, to the Olympics.
If you were just getting into cycling, it meant that he seemed to be everywhere and winning everything. If you were a hardcore cycling fan, it meant he was never quite where you expected.
“He defined British cycling. He defined Britishness itself, it seemed”
He can be the soul of charm — his acceptance speech at BBC Sports Personality in 2012 was genuine and hilarious (“Why, thank you, Susan…”). Equally, I’ve sat through press conferences that would have had much the same carefree atmosphere if we’d all been pointing our Dictaphones at a ticking bomb.
Perhaps that’s not surprising.
But it’s clear that whether you like him, whether you approve of how Team Sky worked his stage race wins, he defined British cycling for a generation. For three extraordinary weeks in the summer of 2012, he seemed to define Britishness itself.
Standing on a podium in Paris he joked that he was going to draw the raffle numbers, a remark that delighted his fans, baffled most of the rest Europe and slightly annoyed the French, all of which was likely his intention.
And it’s still very hard to imagine if the Olympic time trial the following week had gone differently that anyone else would have taken to that big fibreglass throne with quite such aplomb.