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~One of a Kind~
Has there ever been a year when Britain was more spectacularly successful at sport than this one? In a year of superlatives and outstanding achievements, one man stood ever so slightly above his amazing sporting peers not just by being extraordinarily tall and skinny. To win his seventh olympic medal would have made him a hero but to combine that with the unthinkable achievement of winning the Tour de France just a few days before the start of the Olympics meant the man with the sideburns was everybody's favourite Brit. Bradley Wiggins is quite simply beyond compare.
I've loved the Tour de France for about 25 years now although it's not always been an event that was easy to love. When the use of performance-enhancing drugs showed that too many of our idols had feet of clay and the mainstream television channels abandoned their coverage, many wondered if the world's greatest sporting challenge could ever drag itself back from the shame and the disappointment of the cheats. The best a British fan of the Tour could dream of was the odd stage win in the early, flatter stages before the mountains took their toll and the Brits dropped down the leader board. The world hoped for a day when a clean rider would win but even the most optimistic Brits would never have dreamt that one day that clean winner would be a Brit. Wiggins and Team Sky surprised us all and I, not surprisingly, wanted to know more. When 'Bradley Wiggins: Tour de Force' came up as one of Amazon's daily deals for just 99p, I downloaded it without doing too much homework on what I was actually buying.
~About - but not by-Wiggins~
The first thing you need to know about this book is that it's not written BY Bradley Wiggins. It doesn't even seem to be written WITH Bradley Wiggins as there's almost no particular personal insights included and that's an enormous weakness and a disappointment. But, to look on the bright side, it has been written by someone who really appears to know his cycling. I had never heard of John Deering but a little bit of googling soon showed that he's a sports writer who specialises in cycling. One site told me he wrote 'the fifth best cycling book of all time' although it's hard to know how anyone would judge such a thing and whether these were just his publishers trying to spin his new book. Perhaps the fifth best-selling book would be measurable but 'fifth best' is a strange accolade. That book was 'Team on the Run', an account of the bizarre vegetarian Linda McCartney Cycling Team of the late 1990s and early 2000s. As a cycling writer, Deering writes well when describing both the events of the tour and the team's life on the road. His account of Wiggins' life from childhood through to victory is a little less convincing, drawing as it must on things he didn't see and times when he wasn't present. Deering is at his best when he's metaphorically got the wind in his hair and the road beneath his wheels but I felt let down by not really learning anything new about the man in the yellow jersey.
Having told you what you shouldn't expect - i.e. anything very personal or insightful about Wiggins - it's fair to ask what you will get from this book. Structurally the book follows two parallel threads. One is the day by day, account of what happened each stage of the 2012 Tour and this is inter-cut with Wiggins' life story. Each chapter gives us one Tour stage and one step of Wiggins' life presented one after the other. This structure works well enough in the earlier chapters when there are many years between the events described but as you get towards the last few chapters, the events described can start to get really quite confusing. When a chapter mixes up a stage of the 2012 Tour with information about the 2010 or 2011 Tours or another of the big international races, you have to really concentrate to make sure you know where you are as you cut back and forth.
I enjoyed the stories about the young Bradley Wiggins, his relationship with his cyclist-father who abandoned him and his mother, his relationship with his wife and children and his steadily developing career in cycling. I don't think though that any of this is particularly new news. We learn about his obsession with Mod music and his idolisation of Paul Weller and Bradley's musical and fashion tastes are discussed but there's sadly not too much about the man behind the achievements. Aside from some very funny quips when Wiggins says exactly what he thinks without concern for censorship, there's not enough of the humour of the man on show although nobody watching him standing on the podium at the end of the Tour will ever forget his 'victory speech'. Standing there with the cameras of the world upon him, Wiggins says "Right, we're going to draw the numbers for the raffle now". Did anyone outside the UK have a clue what the joke was?
His other classic moment for which I will always adore this man was during the Olympics when Piers Morgan complained on Twitter "I was very disappointed @bradwiggins didn't sing the anthem" to which Wiggins retorted "I was disappointed when you didn't go to jail for insider dealing or phone hacking, but you know, each to his own". Something tells me he won't be getting on Piers Morgan's show any time soon.
~The Sky's the Limit~
I enjoyed the passages about many of the other riders and the history of the Tour and was fascinated by the development of Team Sky and their mission to win the Tour with a British rider. Team Sky must surely be the only part of the Murdoch empire that doesn't receive widespread disdain. Deering descibes how the team was put together rider by rider with each member fulfilling a crucial role within the whole. For me that's the wonder of the road tours - team races in which nationality is unimportant, where self-sacrifice for the good of the team and an almost drone-like dedication of the worker bees to supporting and protecting their 'queen bee' are unlike anything you see in other sports. It's a team sport with an individual winner. Imagine a football team playing so that just one player can be the winner - it's unthinkable.
Were there tensions within the team when it was soon recognised that the only man on the Tour with the potential to beat Wiggins was Chris Froome who was riding in the same team? Evidence suggests that there wasn't open tension in the team but plenty of it between the wives and girlfriends of not just Chris Froome but also Mark Cavendish. As a world champion Cavendish might have not realised he was signing up for third-fiddle in an ultrastrong team but his girlfriend moaned and bitched on Twitter. Did Cavendish ever imagine he'd be the one dropping back to pick up drinks for the team from the support cars? Or was it all just paying his dues for being able to snatch the final stage on the Champs Elysee, his team setting him up for the perfect ending. Would Chris Froome have given Wiggins a better run for his money if he'd been on another team? We'll never know for the 2012 but who knows what may happen in future. How did the UK ever go from a tradition of pitiful cycle-lanes and the old Milk Race to have the two best road riders in the Tour de France and possibly the world?
Deering also describes how the Tour has evolved and been modified in recent years to introduce more rest days and reduce the wear and tear on the riders with the intention of making it physically feasible for riders to survive without the use of drugs. He tells us of the logistical wonder of how the Tour moves from town to town, setting up, tearing down and moving on day after day. The life of the cyclists and support teams is beautifully described along with insights into the little things that gave Team Sky the edge over other teams like having their own special luxury buses for moving between the stages. In her book 'Between the Lines', Victoria Pendleton complains that the road team got all the goodies on the back of the achievements of the track team and that the track riders were very jealous of the special beds and buses.
~An Easy Ride?~
If you are interested in cycling and the Tour de France, this is a super account of the 2012 race and the men involved in it. If you want new information about Bradley Wiggins, then it's probably one to give a miss. If you are one of the many new fans who doesn't know too much about the Tour and its history, this will either be a fantastically interesting introduction to the world's greatest cycling challenge or a boring volume filled with endless stories about people of whom you've never heard. Bradley Wiggins has written an autobiography explaining how he brought himself back from the lows of crashing out of the 2010 Tour de France and rebuilt his confidence. That book is called 'Bradley Wiggins: My Time' and if I can get it at a good price, I'd definitely like to read that one too for a bit of a 'compare and contrast' and also to get more of the first hand account of what it's like to be Bradley Wiggins.
Good luck to Wiggo for this Sunday's 'Sports Personality of the Year'. It's going to be the toughest field ever but he would win it for me by a whisker or the width of a tyre.