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A full decade has passed since that great time to be alive and British: London 2012. It felt as though the entire nation had taken some kind of happiness wonderdrug. Yet one of the athletes at the forefront of that great sporting and cultural success was somehow failing to get with the mood. Bradley Wiggins was knighted following his Olympic gold and becoming the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France just 10 days earlier. Surely the pinnacle of any career? But for all the show of V for victory, seated upon a throne that cemented his regal status in the sport, he was not sharing in the joy, nor enjoying the adulation that came his way. He is a man of many contradictions, not least in his surprising choice of hero… read to the end.
I had been warned he doesn’t like interviews, yet I found him very open, sparing no one in his analysis, not least himself. We talked over a series of childhood traumas – an absent father, who only made contact once his son became successful, and was later murdered; being groomed and abused by a coach as a teenager; being witness to violence and even murder – and his embrace of cycling as a means of escapism. He admits that for all his talent, he could be a total… can I use the C-word in Men’s Health? He certainly does, about himself, explaining how he has since apologised to teammate and rival Chris Froome for his handling of their relationship, and – as a term of endearment, he insists – about the cycling supremo Sir Dave Brailsford.
He admits to a love-hate relationship with the sport that made him famous, though appears currently to be in an affirmed ‘love’ phase. He clearly enjoys his current role covering big races for Eurosport from the back of a motorbike, calling himself a ‘preacher for cycling, its history and its drama’. Though heavier than in his pomp, he still keeps fit, with daily gym sessions, and ventures out for long rides on his own. He refuses to join in the character assassination of Lance Armstrong, nor the attempt to expunge him from cycling history. He is coaching his son, Ben, who has been selected by Team England Futures ahead of the Commonwealth Games. He is even looking forward to an event to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his famous time trial ride at Hampton Court. Though the contradictions still run through him, he gives the sense of a man finally coming to terms with himself, and a success he has sometimes wished he never had.
Alastair Campbell: So the series is Talking Heads, Brad, so let’s talk about your head. How are you feeling about life right now?
Bradley Wiggins: Up and down. Some days it makes sense, some days it doesn’t. But I don’t know if that is my age. I’m 41, five or six years into retirement…
AC: You see yourself as retired?
BW: From cycling, not from work per se. But stopping sport is a big event for anyone. It was all I knew.
AC: How hard was the transition?
BW: I found it easy because I crave normality. And I had stopped enjoying it. I didn’t enjoy being me.
AC: When did that start?
BW: 2012, after winning the Tour de France, then winning at the Olympics. Life was never the same again. I was thrust into this fame and adulation that came with the success.
AC: Why didn’t you like it?
BW: Because I’m an introverted, private person. I didn’t know who ‘me’ was, so I adopted a kind of veil – a sort of rock star veil. It wasn’t really me.
AC: Has your head always been up and down?
BW: I was so institutionalised, from 13 really. I was essentially a professional cyclist from 13 and I didn’t have any perspective of what normal life was.
AC: So you didn’t enjoy it from 2012 onwards, but kept on for four years?
BW: Yeah. It was probably the unhappiest period of my life. Everything I did was about winning for other people, and the pressures that came with being the first British winner of the Tour. I really struggled with it.
AC: Yet that should have been the highlight of your life?
BW: It’s a strange contradiction. Part of me believed it would never happen – it was the kind of thing that happens to other people. But another part of me knew I would do it. Big contradiction. Then, when it happened, I started assuming a character. I was loving the adulation and playing up to it, but then I would get indoors and hate what I had become. I wanted it all because I understand the history of cycling. But I was hit with a stick to do it all by the powers that be. I don’t mean I was being forced to do it – I wanted to do it and they gave me the best training and equipment. But there was this side effect, whereby if you don’t win, you’re scrutinised heavily, and then you’re off.
AC: Cycling is fascinating like that: it’s a team sport but you’re all also out there on your own.
BW: It’s very cut-throat.
AC: Do you have much of a relationship with [former British Cycling coach and Team Sky manager] Dave Brailsford these days?
BW: Not really. The occasional message.
AC: Any bond at all?
BW: Oh yeah, we go back 20 years. He’s like a big brother, just maybe one I don’t talk to all the time. But you couldn’t go through all the success we had – British Cycling, Team Sky – without a bond.
AC: Is it his ruthlessness that makes him successful?
BW: Absolutely. He probably expected me to be more like him. My problem was there was a human being inside me. Dave is a big cunt, a proper cunt, and I say that as a term of endearment because to be successful you have to be. I was at times, Chris Froome was. You have to be ruthless and cuntish. It’s not nice, and you know you’re doing it, but you know if you take your foot off the gas, you’re going to pay a price.
AC: How is your relationship with Chris?
AC: It wasn’t always, was it?
BW: No. I reached out. I wanted to apologise to him for the way I was.
AC: What were you apologising for?
BW: For the way I handled certain situations that amplified the distance between us. There were situations I could have handled better. I was 32 years old and acting like a petulant child. Athletes can do that because you think it all revolves around you. You think you’re better than other people, you blame other people if things go wrong. You become very self-unaware.
AC: So you were apologising for being a cunt?
BW: Basically, yes.
AC: What was the worst thing between you?
BW: The public fall out and never really chatting about it. Also, Dave played us off against each other, trying to push us both harder. He knew one of us would fall by the wayside, and most probably me, because I did that kind of thing. So then Chris would be his pawn for a few years, and then the same happened to Chris, and now it’s happening to Geraint [Thomas] a bit. Meanwhile, Dave stays. That is what makes him successful.
AC: You must feel proud, though, of being part of that whole British cycling revolution?
BW: I do now. For years I wished it never happened.
AC: You’d rather have failed?
BW: When you’re at rock bottom, like I was a few years ago, you can’t see the good. I was very low.
BW: A lot of it was trauma-based.
AC: From childhood? Your dad?
BW: Yeah, coming to terms with things that I had buried.
AC: Do you think cycling was all about running away?
BW: Yes, escapism. I realise that now.
AC: What are the things you were running away from?
BW: It was definitely to do with my dad. Never getting answers when he was murdered in 2008. He left us when I was little, so I met him for the first time when I was 18. We rekindled some kind of relationship but then we didn’t speak for the last couple of years before he was murdered. He was living in poverty. I never went to the funeral.
AC: How did you feel about your dad [Gary, an Australian professional cyclist] when you met him?
BW: He was my hero. I wanted to prove myself to him. He was a good cyclist – he could have been really good – but he was a wasted talent. He was an alcoholic, a manic depressive, quite violent and he took a lot of amphetamines and [sports] drugs back then. Even though he had left us, my mum idolised him. She glorified him as a cyclist, she glorified his behaviour as a person – the violence, the drugs, everything.
AC: He was violent to her?
AC: When he died, what happened?
BW: They still don’t know. He went to a party, was struck over the head, his body was dumped, but they don’t know who did it.
AC: How did you feel when he died?
BW: Very mixed emotions. I had a daughter who was just one year old at the time and it made me determined to be a better parent.
AC: It can’t be easy bringing up kids as a professional cyclist, travelling as much as you do?
BW: The kids were the grounding for me. When I won the Tour, they were the reasons I didn’t want to get back into it. They stopped me doing more because I was craving normality.
AC: What else were you running from?
BW: A lot of stuff. I was groomed by a coach when I was younger – I was about 13 – and I never fully accepted that.
AC: Groomed sexually?
AC: Blimey. We’re getting it all today.
BW: It all impacted me as an adult.
AC: The grooming… did you realise it was a big thing, or did you just bury it?
BW: I buried it. My stepfather was quite violent to me, he used to call me a faggot for wearing Lycra and stuff, so I didn’t think I could tell him. I was such a loner.
AC: Was this guy touching up the other kids?
BW: Probably, but I didn’t talk to anyone. I just wanted to get out of the environment. I became so insular. I was quite a strange teenager in many ways and I think the drive on the bike stemmed from adversity.
AC: Proving yourself to a dad who wasn’t there?
BW: Yeah, but to get out of the whole environment, too. Where I lived, it was opposite St George’s School in Maida Vale, where the head teacher, Philip Lawrence, was murdered in 1995. He got stabbed by a gang and I witnessed it. But it felt normalised; it just went over our heads as kids. There were all these things in my childhood that were traumatic, so I was never happier than when I was on my bike.
AC: It sounds to me like you have a love/hate relationship with cycling?
BW: I have had. For the first time, I’m starting to accept that I should love it. That day, 10 years ago, when I won gold in the Olympic time trial, I was the catalyst for an explosion in British cycling. Of course, there were lots of other people involved – Froome, Chris Hoy, Vicky Pendleton – but it was me doing it as an individual, just days after winning the Tour de France, that put the booster rockets on. They were selling Wiggins sideburns!
AC: And you sat on that throne…
BW: That was the introvert putting on an act. I had such extreme focus for the event that I didn’t know how to behave afterwards. So when I did the V for victory signs, that was the introvert hiding. I didn’t enjoy the attention.
AC: So you’d happily have quit then?
BW: Yes, I would.
AC: And when you did quit, did you have a plan or did you make it up as you went along?
BW: I made it up. You hand your body to coaches and then you hand yourself to a management team. They had a pathway, A League Of Their Own kind of thing. I ended up on a TV show called The Jump and I wondered to myself, ‘What the hell am I doing here? This is not what I want to do.’ There is a temptation to do all sorts to make money out of what you have achieved, but that kind of thing is not fulfilling.
AC: So what is the plan now?
BW: To be happy.
AC: Big goal. How?
BW: Fuck knows. The pathway for me is taking control of what I want to do. For the first time in five years, whether or not I have a love/hate relationship with cycling, I accept the love. I’m not going to pull back from it, not do other stuff.
AC: You seem to enjoy the Eurosport commentary on the back of the motorbike.
BW: I love it.
AC: I’m always amazed that people who have played at the top level – like Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher with football, you with cycling – don’t just see punditry as second best?
BW: There is an element of that, but you can find something different and unique. They have found that. I have that with the motorbike. My passion comes out when I am on the motorbike, out on the course. I took my love for the sport for granted for too long and now it has come back. It’s not about my ego, it’s about trying to inspire other people.
AC: Say you meet someone who doesn’t know who you are. You’re not allowed to talk about your past, but they ask what it is you do. What do you say?
BW: I say I preach about cycling.
AC: You’re a preacher!
BW: I am a broadcaster. I am a storyteller. I’m trying to inspire people to get on their bike, partly through the inspiration of that day 10 years ago. Last Friday, two people came up to me on separate occasions and each thanked me for what I did for cycling that day. That’s better than going on The Jump or going into the jungle. People used to ask, ‘Are you Bradley Wiggins?’ And I would say, ‘I used to be.’ Now I accept it, and it’s fine.
AC: Are you political?
BW: Not really. I pay a bit more attention than I used to, but I wouldn’t know how to debate. Mind you, I’m not sure half the people running the country know what they’re doing.
BW: Last thing I heard he was having a party in lockdown. Shouldn’t be doing that. I don’t know.
AC: You know it’s wrong, though.
BW: I don’t believe anything on the telly or in the paper. It all gets twisted.
AC: Do you read your own media?
AC: You said you don’t like doing interviews.
BW: I don’t mind this because I think what I’m saying here will still hold true in five, 10 years. With most interviews, you’re doing them for a reason at that time. Last year I was doing media for the Unicef On Yer Bike campaign and I was walking up a hill with Molly-Mae off the TV or something. Maura Higgins off Love Island.
AC: Why were you publicising Love Island?
BW: They gave me 10 grand to publicise On Yer Bike and I had to do that. It was like the Soccer Aid one but with bikes. I did the bike one with Freddie Flintoff.
AC: I did the Soccer Aid one with Maradona. I win.
AC: So you will never do the jungle?
AC: Never do Strictly?
AC: Good man.
BW: It’s not fulfilling to me. I want to talk about cycling, the history. I’m part of a lineage. We should pay homage to those before us – Tommy Simpson, Sean Yates, Barry Hoban. I’m still earning a living working in it and I have embraced my love for the sport again.
AC: How many years did you not love it?
BW: I could never get away from it. I used to say stuff like, ‘I was a cyclist, but I’m better now.’ Putting it down. But secretly I had the biggest collection of memorabilia you could find.
AC: Full of contradictions.
BW: Yes, but I am self-aware enough to recognise that and make change.
AC: So I get depression, take medication every day. Do you get big mood swings?
BW: Not the same way as you, but there are triggers that can cause me not to be in the best state of mind. I have to have routine. Training every day, it’s important. Not drinking too much. With my depression, if I’m not looking after myself it manifests more like a mania. I always thought of depression as taking you to a dark room in a stoop. I try to be funnier and end up being shocking and contentious.
AC: Are you and Cath still close, despite splitting up?
AC: What is your exercise regime now?
BW: Gym, running and, now that the weather is improving, I’ll get out on the bike more. I’m doing a ride from Edinburgh to the Isle of Wight for the charity Health in Mind. Cycling is such a good thing for mental health. An old friend of mine, Phil Griffiths, is 72. He has cancer. And he said this wonderful thing to me: ‘No therapist has ever been able to do for me what a bike does.’ The bike is a great antidepressant.
AC: Is there anything else in the sport itself that you want to do?
BW: I’m coaching my son and he has just qualified for the Commonwealth Games team. I’d love to be a national coach but I don’t think my face fits that.
AC: What’s with all the tattoos?
BW: I love them. I don’t wear expensive watches, I don’t need material things. So I’m into body art.
AC: Are you a good friend?
BW: I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of friends. I think there’s such a falsity around friendship. You can only be good for people if you’re in a good space yourself. The better you are, the more useful you are to other people. I have tried to help people, sometimes at the expense of myself, probably to make myself feel better about myself… I don’t know.
AC: So how many really, really close friends do you have?
BW: Probably none. I’m still working through that.
AC: Too wrapped up in yourself?
BW: It’s not important to me at the moment. I’ve been focusing on getting myself back. A lot of people have come and gone, but actually, maybe they were only friends with me because I was Bradley Wiggins.
AC: Any cyclists you’ve stayed close to?
BW: Steve Cummings and Mark Cavendish. It’s about longevity more than anything. We knew each other before we got famous.
AC: Which other sports stars do you relate to?
BW: Mike Tyson. I like his brutal honesty. I have been reckless like he was, and when I hear his honesty and his self-awareness as he assesses his life, I recognise things.
AC: Do you still keep in touch with Lance Armstrong?
BW: Now and again, although not for a year or so.
AC: How do you view the whole Lance thing now?
BW: It is what it is. It’s nearly 10 years now. He’s paid a price. There will always be an open wound in the sport, but people’s love for cycling hasn’t diminished. He is part of the sport’s history. Taking his name away from seven Tour victories is irrelevant. People remember him as winning them and you can’t eliminate history. You leave it there and learn so it doesn’t happen again. I think success for some people is Lance dead in a hotel room like [Italian cyclist] Marco Pantani. He’s a human being, a good father. It’s more of an example that the sport should never be like that again.
AC: When you got all that grief over TUEs [Therapeutic Use Exemptions], was that all part of that open wound?
BW: It was part of it, and more sinister things. I became collateral damage for the wars in British Cycling and Team Sky.
AC: In your pomp, how much of your success was physical and how much of it mental?
BW: They went hand in hand. I had an acute ability to understand my body inside out. I don’t think I had extreme physical talent, it was an understanding of how to make the bike faster. In time trials, I could ride to one watt of where I was meant to be. Others surge and go 50 watts over. I could manage it – like a car’s cruise control. That’s physical and mental together.
AC: I’ve been on Mont Ventoux when the Tour is going up there. I mean, what on earth is it like riding through those crowds on the road?
BW: Immense. Sometimes it can be hostile. When we climbed Ventoux in 2009, I was going toe to toe with Lance. There were lots of Spanish supporters backing Contador against Lance and they were spitting at Lance and all sorts. But when the crowd backs you, it’s like a tunnel of sound. It’s another level.
AC: Does it make you faster?
BW: If anything it makes you slower because it takes you out of the extreme focus. The thing about real focus is that you block out the pain. If something takes you out of the bubble, takes you out of that focus, you suddenly realise it hurts.
AC: You told me earlier that no one has asked who your non-cycling hero is. So who is it?
BW: Christopher Hitchens. I just love him. Blunt, so articulate, no nonsense.
AC: You said you weren’t political. He was
BW: It wasn’t so much his politics. He just made everything so clear and simple.
AC: What about his brother?
BW: Not keen on his brother. He tries too hard to be like him. Christopher was great.
If you have been affected by any of Bradley’s words, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111 and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) also offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331
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