Rio Olympics 2016: Sir Bradley Wiggins – making history in his own way

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Chris Hoy cried on the podium. Uncontrollably. Daley Thompson whistled. Gleefully.

Sir Bradley Wiggins? He does it his own way. He usually does – and the nation’s affection for him runs deeper than his sporting accomplishments as a result.

This history-maker – the first Briton to win eight Olympic medals, after success in the team pursuit in Rio – is different.

In a world where sports stars are trained to be run-of-the-mill, told to avoid controversy, Wiggins adds colour to the grey. He can be loquacious and funny, or monosyllabic and detached, but he is never dull.

Sir Chris Hoy, a six-time Olympic champion, describes his former team-mate as unpredictable, while Chris Boardman – gold medallist in Barcelona 1992 – says the 36-year-old is an enigma.

“I’ve never worked Brad out,” says Boardman, former technical adviser to the British road and track cycling team. “He’s his own man and doesn’t follow a beaten path.

“He’s authentic so people enjoy that. It might be messy, you’re not quite sure if he’s going to swear or be sober, but he’s real and in this day and age where everyone is media managed, it’s appreciated.

“There’s a lesson in there, there’s probably lessons both ways with Bradley. Just be honest, tell the truth and people enjoy that.”

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Wiggins the national hero

Wiggins will forever be associated with the giddying summer of 2012, when Britain achieved unprecedented sporting success. He was the main act and will always go side-by-side with the merry memories many have of the period.

First was the Tour de France victory – then more glory 10 days’ later as Wiggins became the first man to win the Tour and an Olympic gold in the same year.

He is a star because he is an incredible athlete, the best cyclist these islands have produced, but he not only entertains when on his bike. There are the quips, the put-downs, the unwillingness to bow to authority. He is his own man.

When seated on a golden throne in front of Hampton Court Palace to collect his Olympic time trial gold, the newly anointed national hero flashed a peace sign to the cameras, a moment in itself.

But the north London boy, clearly uncomfortable in his surroundings, quickly hopped back on his bike, rode past the ticketed VIPs – later calling it a “prawn sandwich fest” – and cycled out of the palace to see his family and the thousands who had gathered on the streets. “The real fans,” he described them as.

He received a message from the Queen after winning the Tour, but joked it was more of a thrill to be congratulated by Johnny Marr, guitarist of The Smiths.

Later that year were the BBC Sports Personality awards – which the seven-time world champion won, beating a short-list like no other. Wiggins, dressed in dark velour, appeared on stage showcasing his extroverted side, jovially calling Sue Barker ‘Susan’, making the audience laugh. It was not staged, he was enjoying himself, just like many of us would had we achieved such success.

'Susan' Barker
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Wiggins the showman and the quiet man

In his autobiography, Team Sky rider Geraint Thomas recalls how Wiggins, at the wedding of team-mate Steve Cummings, stole the band’s mic to “entertain the expectant crowd with some impromptu Usain Bolt/reggae rapping and his tie around his head”.

“When he’s up he’s a remarkable character to be around,” adds the Welshman.

After being crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year, Wiggins attended the after-show party and again stole the show, appearing on stage with the house band to play guitar on a Paul Weller classic.

He is a sportsman, he could be a rock star, but there is shade to his light. Wiggins is not an eternal entertainer.

“You don’t know what kind of Bradley you’re going to get sometimes and that’s what people find exciting,” says Hoy. “Sometimes he can be on great form and other times he doesn’t want to talk at all.”

In the same chapter of his autobiography, Thomas says Wiggins can eat in the team dining room in silence and leave having not said a word.

He writes: “The foreign riders who don’t know him are totally baffled. ‘Where Brad go? Where the jokes?'”

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Wiggins the mod, Mr Popular and Mr Unpopular

People can relate to Wiggins because they think they know him. It is easy to reel off that this son of a single mum loves classic guitars and Paul Weller, and has a weakness for brogues, sharp tailoring and scooters. He is a mod and that, for a sportsman, is not the norm.

Storytellers are keen to tell you about Wiggins because he is interesting, as well as successful, and he has been around long enough for his tale to be well-known; from schoolboy success to a first Olympic medal (bronze) as a 20-year-old, to a golden ending on his Olympic farewell in Rio.

Others, like compatriot Chris Froome – a three-time Tour de France winner – are not held in the same esteem, mainly because his story – born in Kenya, educated in South Africa, based in Monaco – is not atypical and not so familiar.

“Chris hasn’t been racing on a national circuit at home for decades and they haven’t had time to get to know him,” says Hoy. “It takes time to get that recognition from the British public.”

It is Wiggins’ relationship with Froome that reveals the five-time Olympic champion is also not everyone’s friend. In his autobiography, the 31-year-old accuses Wiggins of hiding behind humour and a “gruff geezer cloak”.

“We rode around him and his moods like he was a traffic island,” he writes of his time as Wiggins’ team-mate during the 2012 Tour.

Mark Cavendish, frustrated at having been overlooked for a team pursuit spot in Rio, claimed last week that Wiggins “wants to be the hero and all that”.

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Wiggins the team-mate, the leader

Now in his 37th year and coming towards the end of what has been an extraordinary chapter in his life, there will be no ifs, no buts when Wiggins looks back on a career of plenty.

And with success, with age, comes experience. Regardless of his mood, whether extroverted or introverted, Wiggins is, above all, a leader.

“He’s got that X-factor which makes him stand out from the crowd,” says Hoy. “He has an aura about him when he comes to the track centre and it lifts the team as well. The team see him as a leader and it had a massive popular effect.”

At the 2011 road world championships, Thomas remembers how Wiggins galvanised a worried team with an all-for-one, one-for-all speech on the bus.

“There was total silence,” says Thomas. “That was the moment I realised that, thank God, Brad was in.”

It was a phenomenal turn from Wiggins that helped Cavendish win the road world title that year, a performance which rekindled a friendship which had drifted after the pair finished ninth in the Madison at the 2008 Olympics.

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Wiggins, the former cyclist?

Unsurprisingly for a man know for his unpredictability, no-one seems to know what Wiggins will do once he stops pedalling, but whatever he does it will no doubt be on his own terms.

“He doesn’t stick to what he should be doing, he sticks to what is interesting,” says Boardman.

“It’s a relative comedown from being a Tour de France winner to riding in a team event only at an Olympic Games, but he chooses the things that interest him and keep him passionate and you’ve got to respect that.

“Bradley doesn’t know what his plans are post-Olympics and that’s part of the fun of it with him, but the likes of Bradley are the lucky ones. They can walk away content.”

Wiggins – in his own words

After winning the Tour de France: “We’re just going to draw the raffle numbers now! Thanks for the amazing support the last three weeks. I really appreciate it. It’s been a magical couple of weeks. Some dreams do come true. My old mother over there, her son’s just won the Tour de France. Thank you everyone. Cheers. Have a safe journey home and don’t get too drunk.”

On cycling: “I love it. I’ll always be riding my bike. I come from a cycling family. I’ll probably be there in 20 years’ time marshalling on the corner somewhere for a local 10km. I’ll still be in a cycling club. It’s pretty embedded.”

On becoming famous: “I left home on 22 June [2012] and nobody knew who I was, in the village even, bar a couple. And then I came back to this overwhelming adulation everywhere I go. It is fantastic, brilliant, it really is – but I wasn’t quite expecting the reaction.”

After winning BBC Sports Personality of the Year: “Thank you to everyone who voted. We have had all that jungle stuff and X Factor in the last few weeks, so for people to pick up the phone and vote in half-an-hour, thank you very much.

“To be ahead of Jess [Ennis] and Andy [Murray], it’s probably my greatest sporting achievement. The other stuff you can control, you can’t control people voting for you.

“To my nan, the cheque is in the post because you pressed redial so many times!

“There is a free bar round the back paid for by the BBC, so we are all going round there.”

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