Bradley Wiggins unchained: ‘I’d have had more rights as a murderer’
In his new book, the British cyclist says doping allegations have devastated his family life but cannot taint his love of cycling
Bradley Wiggins pictured at the Olympic Park in London during the recent Six Day London race. Photograph: Matthew Childs/Reuters
“People ask me now, ‘Are you Bradley Wiggins?’ and I always say, ‘I used to be,’” the former cyclist explains with a painful little smile as his famous old name slips from his mouth. “It’s funny because I do it to everyone in this book. When I met Miguel Induráin he got embarrassed. I don’t like it when people do it to me. I say, ‘I’ve moved on. He’s gone now, that person.’”
The book is called Icons. It’s rather beautiful and an intriguing blend of cycling history and personal snippets which offer insight into Wiggins’s contradictions. The “proper nerd” he used to be, as a cycling-obsessed teenager living on a Kilburn council estate, shines through some endearing pages about the bike riders who consumed him when he fell for a brutal and complicated sport.
Yet it is striking that a man steeped in cycling history should avoid acknowledging in the book that Icons features many dopers. Wiggins, instead, writes that “romance is the soul of cycling.” The romance, however, has been stripped by allegations and denials of cheating – and by open confessions of persistent doping.
Wiggins’s own story is tarnished. His life is nothing like it was in 2012, when he won the Tour de France and Olympic gold while being celebrated as a great British icon who could do little wrong.
In March 2018 a UK parliamentary culture, media and sport select committee published a devastating report which claimed Team Sky had abused the anti-doping system and allowed Wiggins to use triamcinolone before the 2012 Tour. The report concluded that Sky had “crossed an ethical line” in obtaining therapeutic use exemption (TUE) forms to enable Wiggins to take triamcinolone which, apart from helping his asthma, enhanced his power-to-weight ratio. Sky and Wiggins reject the charge. The impasse has taken its toll with no-one able to prove whether or not triamcinolone had been sent in Sky’s notorious jiffy bag.
But, first, we discuss his book and the choice to mention doping only in passing. “It’s not a book about that,” Wiggins says. “There are greater people, with more powers, that can do something [about doping].”
As an ardent collector of cycling memorabilia, Wiggins estimates that, “I could make a phone call tomorrow and sell the whole collection for half a million.” But his love of cycling has been regenerated by the book, which features evocative items given to him by the chosen Icons. “Cycling means the world to me and I’ve gone back, no chains attached. No political correctness. I’m not with a team that’s agenda-led – or want me to be careful about mentioning Lance Armstrong. I say what I like. It’s good to go back to when I fell in love with cycling aged 13. Growing up in Kilburn I could have ended up somewhere very different. Some would say I’d have been better off being killed or in prison.”
Wiggins looks up. “I was a kid living in Kilburn in the early 1990s, with pictures of Belgian cyclists on my wall. There has probably never been a kid in Kilburn, before or since, who had a bedroom wall like that.”
Life has changed joltingly since he won the Tour. “My kids have suffered,” Wiggins says. “We had to move schools and then all the stuff broke with Lance in 2013 [when Armstrong finally admitted to doping] and the kids started getting it.”
Everything became worse two years ago when the Fancy Bears hackers released documents showing Wiggins had been given permission to use triamcinolone, a banned corticosteroid, for medical reasons with the appropriate TUEs, before races in 2011, 2012 and 2013. “People have free rein to put their own facts in place. Kids read headlines and their parents say things about you. You end up saying to your kids: ‘Just tell them to fucking do one.’ They do and it’s your kids in trouble.
“Then the BBC show up on your doorstep, and you can’t take your kids to school. You tell the BBC, ‘I can’t talk to you, because there’s an investigation.’ They just want to know about the packages. The whole thing becomes an uncontrolled trial by media. In any other court it would be thrown out because the media have skewed the facts.
“You watch your family suffer, and it’s terrible. It nearly killed my wife [Cath]. She ended up in rehab over it. I’m at home having to deal with it. Because she’s bi-polar she has this fear of shame, people watching her all the time. You couldn’t say that at the time because you’ve asked for it, because you’ve won the Tour de France. No, I didn’t ask for that actually. I only asked for a fair trial.”
These personal words about his family provide a salutary reminder to those who have been so vehement. An ordinary family has been scorched. But there is also hope when I ask how Cath is today. “Really good now. She’s moving on.”
Wiggins’s anger is still palpable. “What I should have done,” he says, “is murder someone because then I’d have had proper rights. I’d have had more rights as a murderer. There’d have been no articles, and I’d have had a fair trial. I’d have been cleared or found guilty. Not somewhere in the middle where you can’t find any evidence of wrongdoing.”
Has Wiggins accepted that his name has been tainted? “Yeah. I understand that not everyone’s going to like you. I don’t like everyone. It’s made me be myself more and say what I think.”
Will the truth ever be established – especially as Wiggins said earlier this year that “very sinister” details surrounded the jiffy-bag scandal and he would “love it to come out.” He nods. “There’s a lot more going on than I alluded to this summer. I can’t prove any of it yet. It might take five years and, in the interim, I’m carrying on with my life.”
I am a sucker for many of the book’s stories. Wiggins’s first chosen icon is Johan Museeuw, the Belgian who won both Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders on three separate occasions. Flanders was the first race Wiggins watched, live on Eurosport in 1993, when he was 13. Museeuw won and Wiggins was thrilled because, in those pre-internet days, he usually had to wait until Cycling Weekly arrived at his local newsagent on a Thursday to find out who had won Flanders the previous weekend.
In 1996, Wiggins and his brother were taken by their mum to see Museeuw race in Flanders. Wiggins was almost beside himself but, being 16, he was “too cool for school”. He forced his eight-year-old brother to approach the cyclists. “He was acting as a proxy for me because I didn’t want to come across as the smitten, star-struck teenager I was.”
At his final Tour of Flanders, in 2015, Wiggins stressed how much Musseuw had meant to him. They swapped messages on Instagram. Mussuew’s 15-year-old son was a Wiggins fan and the circle was complete. The only problem was that when they met, and Museeuw gave him his 1993 jersey, Wiggins felt like a tongue-tied teenager again while the middle-aged icon had a high-pitched voice which “seemed the opposite of the ferocious rider he’d once been.”
It’s a lovely story but Wiggins looks surprised when I ask him why he does not mention Museeuw’s confession in 2007 that he “did not play the game honestly” and, like most cyclists of his era, had used EPO. In a 2012 Cycling Weekly interview Museeuw said of doping: “We must break with the hypocrisy. The only way to come out of that murderous spiral is to break the silence that haunts us.”
Surely Wiggins could follow his boyhood hero and write honestly about cycling’s dark history? “I didn’t because I’ve gone back to when I was 13 and didn’t know about EPO. I took all that out, not because I condone it, but because I can’t change who inspired me. I was inspired by their feats on the bike and the memories of them coming into the velodrome at Roubaix regardless of whether they were on EPO. In hindsight, they probably were. But it was like, ‘Fuck me, this is what I want to do. I have to get out of Kilburn and live in Belgium.”
Armstrong’s doping has been documented so thoroughly I can’t feel outraged by his presence in Wiggins’s book. But Wiggins suggests that, “Henri Desgrange, the ‘father of the Tour’, envisaged a ‘perfect winner’ . . . a super athlete who would not only defeat his opponents but whatever nature might throw at him . . . it explains why Tour winners tended to be masochistic, obsessive and, on occasion, borderline sociopathic.” Wiggins concludes that Armstrong was “precisely the sort of winner Desgrange had in mind 120 years ago.”
Are he and Armstrong close today? “Not in terms of being really friendly. But we have mutual respect. I talk to him fairly regularly.”
Has Armstrong suffered more than other dopers? “Perhaps not. I don’t think he’s suffered enough. But in other ways he has. I went to the US last month, to ride George Hincapie’s Gran Fondo [a charity race in South Carolina], and asked Lance, ‘Are you going?’ He said he’s not allowed to ride sanctioned events. It’s harsh that he can’t ride around the back of a group with his mates. He’s 47, he’s not going to try to win a Scott bike at Gran Fondo. In terms of coming back to the sport, a life ban is fair enough. But banning him across the board is too much.”
What does he think of Armstrong’s podcast? “I love it. It’s brilliant. He’s not frightened to say what he thinks. The trouble with cycling now is that too many people have an agenda or are not allowed to show who they are. Peter Sagan’s holding the sport up. He’s got the personality but he’s not very articulate. He’s like a child trapped in an adult’s body. Sagan is a genius on a bike but we need more personalities. G [Geraint Thomas] has the personality. He’s a lovely, really funny guy. But the shackles are on him with Sky. You can’t say what you think.”
We return to the subject of doping and Icons. Both Jacques Anquetil, the first man to win the Tour de France five times in the 1960s, and Fausto Coppi, who twice won the double of the Giro d’Italia and the Tour in 1949 and 1952, admitted they had doped at a time when there was little scrutiny of such habits. Anquetil said: “Leave me in peace. Everybody takes dope.”
Wiggins reiterates his romantic reasons for glossing over this truth. And yet, writing about another of his heroes, Induráin, Wiggins states: “He rode during the EPO years and yet he’s the Tour winner that nobody has ever gone after . . . Induráin’s morality is bomb-proof.”
The Spaniard tested positive for Salbutamol in 1994 but the head of the IOC’s medical commission led the defence by stressing that Induráin needed the prescribed and legitimate medication for his asthma. He was cleared. Even though he remains in the records books as an unequivocally clean cyclist who was never banned, Induráin’s reputation has been questioned repeatedly by dubious fans. Induráin himself has always denied any wrongdoing at any stage of his career.
“He is described as the perfect gentleman” Wiggins says of Induráin. “You could find him in bed with your wife and he’d give you a hug. He’d make you think it was your idea. He was just that kind of fellow, such a nice person. I don’t think he had one enemy in the peloton. He gifted people stages because it was enough for him to win the Tour. He wasn’t greedy.”
Induráin might have been a gentleman but, after riding six Tours with limited impact, he won five in a row. Cynics point to the widespread use of EPO in that period. Is it possible that Induráin might have cheated? “I don’t know. You have to think, in that time, maybe he was. But until he gets caught you assume he wasn’t. This just comes from the heart of his reign when I was aged 11 to 15. I’m writing it from my teenage [perspective].”
Induráin’s supporters, like a young Wiggins, appear even more certain of his innocence. So does it irk Wiggins that Chris Froome, his former rival at Sky, could join Anquetil and Induráin by winning a fifth Tour next year? “Not at all. Chris is a great athlete, and I’m sure he’ll do it. I don’t think G can match him in the climbs. G’s great on the cobblestones but an on-form Chris beats him. Regardless of what we think of each other as people, he’ll go down as, if not the greatest of his generation, one of the best.”
Wiggins is scathing towards Dave Brailsford – his former boss at Sky. He loves Sean Yates, a former team-mate of Armstrong who also worked for Team Sky and helped Wiggins win the Tour in 2012. Yates was eased out of Sky in October 2012. “They said his health was the reason. But they got rid of him because of the association with Lance. That’s typical Dave and Sky. As long as it looks good on paper, fuck what it’s actually like behind the scenes.”
Wiggins sees the threads of history tying him, Froome and Thomas, as Tour winners, to great riders of the past. “We watched Geraint win the Tour and saw Sky take a six-storey office block of a bus. Dave’s got his own mobile home that he sleeps in. Think of Coppi winning the Tour in 1949. The last three stages were 900kms. The last stage into Paris was 350km. It took them 12 hours to do it. You didn’t get into a bus then or talk about marginal gains. You didn’t do a warm-down before the podium. Fuck the warm-down. I’ve just done 350 km.
“But for all the differences we’re in the same club as Coppi. We won the Tour and we’re steeped in that unique history. As much as the sport has changed we’re still trekking across the mountains in France, maybe on better bikes, better equipment, better roads, bigger crowds. It’s still the same climbs. But I sense Coppi’s greatness. You imagine little towns in the Dolomites that wouldn’t get newspapers or TV. They would hear that Coppi was coming past. People would put the wheelbarrows down and come out to get a glimpse of Coppi. There’s something beautiful about that.”
All our debate over doping and heartache has disappeared. Wiggins leans forward and says: “Coppi, Anquetil and [Hugo] Koblet all had fucking nice hair. They carried combs in their back pocket. There’s a picture of Koblet in the yellow jersey, a towel round him, combing his hair. They all combed their hair as soon as they crossed the line because that’s where the photos were taken. Brilliant.”
Wiggins seems happy again but how will he spend his immediate future? “I’m doing this one-man tour onstage about the book . Going around the country. I’ll tell stories, a bit of comedy. Some impressions.”
Won’t he be nervous? ‘No. I’ll be great. Being myself is enough.”
What will he do if, shortly before his first performance, all the past pain rises up again? Wiggins sinks back in his chair and smiles. “I’ll just have a bottle of red. A bottle of wine changes the world.” - Guardian
ICONS: My Inspiration. My Motivation. My Obsession by Bradley Wiggins is published by HarperCollins and available now.