Human, flesh and blood, made to make mistakes

“Once we saw that Nibali had cracked at the top of the Peyresourde, we knew we didn’t have the danger of him attacking in the final so it was at that point that I knew it was pretty much over. We rode away from the rest of the field and I lost concentration. I was thinking of lots of different things at that time. Chris wanted more but the fight had gone from me at that point…All the way up the last climb I almost had tears in my eyes.”

And so explained why after accelerating up the final climb of stage 17 of the 2012 Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins looked weak, Chris Froome looked frustrated and the Twiteratti exploded largely with the British disease of knocking a guy on the verge of history. The fact of the matter is Bradley Wiggins once again showed he is human. Thank goodness for that.

For many years cycling fans have grown used to the infallable, imperial march of Tour champions. Last year’s race together with this have thrown up leaders who have differed from this script. In comparison to a certain American, Cadel Evans and Bradley wiggins have looked strong but fallable. They have not treated winning the Tour as their right, they have looked and been seen to have their weaknesses yet they have ridden through them, battled and shown courage, determination, dignity and respect. Above it all, they have not only looked human, their interviews have been human too. Witness Wiggins’ interview last week.

Last year’s winner Cadel Evans looked fragile in his win then and this year has seen his fair share of misfortune. At the end of stage 16 he sat on the steps of his BMC team bus and spoke candidly to the reports crammed outside:

I had a few stomach issues just before the race … when it’s an hour or two hours before the race there is not a lot you can do. I didn’t think it would affect me in the race, but obviously that’s not my normal level and it’s pretty much Tour de France over for me.

Anybody who has ever had “stomach issues” – and you know what we mean by that –  knows what Evans must be going through. To ride a bike any distance let alone up 4 Pyrenean climbs in the heat of a French summer doesn’t bare contemplation when you are in that state. Fallable? Foolish? Probably both but that’s what makes him human.

For Wiggins there has been a genuine humility when interviewed, shown in his respect for the race traditions, for the racing and especially for his tea. Anybody who has read In Pursuit of Glory will understand that for Wiggins the team environment matters. In the past, being in the wrong team has exposed Wiggins’ weaknesses and put him in his comfort zone on the track. Now in Team Sky he recognises the value of his team and the team ethos that has developed over time,

We are a close group and we have been all year. That’s why we’re in this position now. We’ve gone out there each day and proved on the road that there isn’t a problem.

And on Monday he praised the team for their collective efforts.

This is a star team, not a team of stars. What we do well is we race as a team. We’ve done that all year. I am surrounded by incredibly talented bike riders… We are a close group and we have been all year. We’ve proved on the road that there isn’t a problem.

Brian Clough would be proud. And in particular he singled out Mark Cavendish who has put aside his usual haul of stage wins and been a dedicated team mate for Wiggins’ pursuit of the Yellow jersey.

Mark has been fantastic these last two and a half weeks. He’s been so committed to my cause – to the yellow jersey – and he’s a great champion and a great friend.

And of the man who according to some tried to drop him on stage 11 and on stage 17 was accused both of making his leader look like a fool and of being held back unfairly from a second stage win?

Chris was super strong again today. He’s super excited. He’s been a fantastic team-mate during this Tour de France. For sure, one day, he’ll win the Tour and I’ll be there beside him to do it.

Watch the video of this interview, those do not come across as hollow words said because he should. Though the heat of the moment can sometimes suggest otherwise, there is a genuine respect by Wiggins for others – teammates, opponents and officials.

But Wiggins is a much more complex character, a man who I have identified with in the past and still do today. He’s a rider who has reached great heights already but who has a tendancy to knock himself down. A rider on who there are great expectations but who often thinks he has let people down. Sound familiar? It does to me. Here is a man on the verge of making history and who has quite understandably had a moment of shock and realisation. It’s not the invincibility we’ve seen from past Tour winners and to me that is a good sign for the sport.

One clear message from this year’s Tour is that, in the words of the late Roy Castle, dedication’s what you need. His outburst last weekend is borne of frustration at the lack of recognition of just how hard he has worked and the sacrifices he has made to achieve this. Wiggins’ quite rightly criticised the cult of empty celebrity,

It’s nice to be recognised for achieving something in life because so much of British culture is built on people being famous for not achieving anything. It’s nice in sport when people stop you in the street and respect you for something you have achieved.

These are the things that endear him to me. These make him a champion. Wiggins is human, he has faults but he is determined to succeed. He’s a family man, a dad who looks forward to taking his son to rugby camp after winning a Tour de France. A man who doesn’t mind if people don’t recognise him in Wigan. He wants recognition but he values his space.

What will I do if I win on Sunday? I will concentrate on the time trial of the Olympic Games and when all is over, I go back to my home, come back to reality and go and buy bread and milk.

Long may the humanisation of cycling continue. I can’t imagine some recent Tour winners even knowing where to buy bread. With 3 stages still to go I do not want to tempt fate but despite (and probably because of) his human traits Wiggins is looking good for the win in Paris. Whilst it will be great to have a British winner of the Tour it will be even better to have a champion who is an ordinary guy that most of us can identify with in some way. Allez Wiggo.


4 thoughts on “Human, flesh and blood, made to make mistakes

  1. Well put Rob, enjoyed reading thoughts similar to my own. Personally I hope Froome steps out of the shadow and wins a GT, maybe even The Tour, in the future, but it’s far from a given. Simply being strongest on a couple of steeper climbs does not a Tour winner make, and over that last couple of years Wiggo hasn’t just been honing the team and his physical form, he’s been learning to deal with all the pressures of being a race winner – dealing with the press and the other obligations of the organisers not to mention the finger pointing and sniping of media and fans, and generally just being in the spotlight. This takes a physical and mental toll. Although not a serial winner in the past Chris Froome might well embrace these duties and soar, but he could just as easily crumble as have others before him. It’s not a cycling comparison, but I just think back to Ian Botham and how he was before, during and after his tenure as Captain of the England cricket team, and the effect that leadership had on his ability to even merely play the game. In cycling many super domestiques have failed to live up to their promise over the years, so until Froome Dog really steps up we won’t know whether his mild mannered, laid back demeanour is a cushion that absorbs and deflects pressure or a weakness that will be crushed by the sheer weight of expectation.

    • Thanks Steve, a combination of the British disease and the me-now society seems to have clouded the thinking of others. Nice to be reassured that the bigger picture is still visible to some though. And a very good point about leadership, not that this is confined solely to sport either.

  2. Hello,
    It’s a nice narrative post to read and I’m thankful for it but I certainly do not agree with the opinion expressed there.
    I’m ok with what you write about Cadel and last year Tour but I do not see what’s human in two skeletons and their whole team dominating the Tour de France this way (sometimes it reminded me some very bad memories of a few years ago…).
    That said, in my humble opinion, Froome and Wiggins are the strongest in this Tour. But SKY chose Wiggins over Froome. And I think it’s a bad thing for the 2012 Tour de France winner, the Tour de France race and the sport of cycling.
    Seeing Froome stop his effort and wait for Wiggins in La Toussuire and Peyragudes was painful: a sport killer in an overall boring race.
    Unless Froome looses 3′ in tomorrow final time trial, I’ll always doubt the winner was the strongest… Tour de France deserves more than a winner chosen by a sponsor.
    In my opinion (and it’s only mine), 2012 was definitely not a great year for Tour de France with way to much stages for massive arrivals and too much distance between big passes and stage arrivals.

    • Thanks for your comment DaJo – its always nice to have some feedback). However, I disagree with what you say. You are correct, Team Sky picked Wiggins over Froome and there is good reason for this: Wiggins has shown the potential to make this step up for a number of years, last season he had prepared for the Tour de France only to suffer the misfortune that others have seen in the first week of this race, and this season he has based his entire race programme around the Tour de France becoming the first rider in history to win Paris-Nice, Tour of Romandie and Criterium de Dauphine in the same season. He has dealt with the pressure of being the team leader throughout this adding more stress to the preparation. That he has shown himself to be human at times in this Tour de France is only natural. Whilst I will agree that Chris Froome has looked strong and may have been the better rider out of the 198 starters, for Sky to pick him above Wiggins makes little sense: Froome has had his health problems this year and has only recently got fitter and stronger; he has not had to deal with the pressure of leadership in the way Wiggins has; and he is part of a professional cycling team, his role to be a support to the team leader. Sky have played this very well but those looking in will always look for a scandal and drama.

      You’re right, this Tour hasn’t been the best for drama in some respects but I think it has been a fine deomstration of bike racing. Look back at the highlights in a year’s time and I’m sure you will see some of this. For me, yes I am biased as a British cycling fan who has waited long and hard to see a real British contender but I cannot and will not apologise for that, I’m human too.

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