Finally, 75 years after a man named Charlie Holland led a three-man team on an exploratory venture that ended when his pump broke and he was unable to reflate a punctured tyre, Britain has its first winner of the Tour de France. Bradley Wiggins , already a triple Olympic gold medal winner, stood on the top step of the podium halfway up a sunlit Champs Elysées on Sunday to accept his victory in the world’s greatest bike race and, to some eyes, the greatest free show the world has to offer.
There he was, at the very summit of every bike racer’s ambition, with the eyes not just of a vast crowd in Paris and the sport’s worldwide audience on him but those of his own nation, watching on television. Then he was handed the microphone.
“Right,” he said. “We’re just going to draw the raffle numbers.”
The French, for whom the Tour has represented an important expression of national identity virtually since its inception in 1903, have spent the past three weeks finding out about the 32-year-old Wiggins. They have been told about his collection of Gibson and Fender guitars and Lambretta and Vespa scooters, and about the roundel on his helmet – originally the RAF insignia, appropriated in 1964 as a pop art device on a T-shirt worn by Keith Moon, drummer with the Who, and then adopted as a symbol of the Mod revival. They have listened to his nakedly emotional press conferences and they have discovered his mischievous and very English sense of humour.
“Colonel Wiggo”, they christened him, and sometimes “Le Gentleman”, in recognition of his gesture – which showed his respect for cycling’s cherished traditions – in slowing the peloton to wait for Cadel Evans, the defending champion, after the Australian rider had suffered three punctures from carpet tacks strewn on the narrow road at the top of the Mur de Péguère.
They were equally impressed when, while wearing the race leader’s hallowed yellow jersey, he started to appear in the line of riders pacing his Team Sky colleague Mark Cavendish for a bunch sprint. Normally the leader hides himself inside a protective posse of team-mates, keeping clear of possible accidents. Yet here was Wiggins, putting himself at risk in order to give Cavendish the chance of glory.
It worked again on Sunday, when Wiggins shot out of the tunnel under the Tuileries, with the golden statue of Jeanne d’Arc in his sights. Turning left into the Rue de Rivoli, in front of pavements packed with British fans, he accelerated to the front, once again making the pace, a beam of light at the head of the pounding pack. And again Cavendish responded, racing on to seal an extraordinary triumph.
In return, thanks to Wiggins, the British have finally learnt to adore the Tour, and to appreciate its unique qualities. In cricket terms, you might say that the 3,497km (2,172 miles) race, with its 20 teams and 198 riders, its 21 stages, its ever-changing backdrop of mountains and sunflower fields and delectable small towns, its four jerseys – yellow, green, white and polka-dot – and its tears of joy and pain, resembles a five-day Test, a 50-over match and a Twenty20 contest all going on at the same time, stretched over three weeks. Only more complicated than that, in its blend of individual and collective endeavour and reward.
No wonder it took a Briton so long to master its complexities, following in the wheeltracks of 21 Frenchmen, nine Belgians, six Italians and six Spaniards, four Luxemburgers, two Dutch, two Swiss, two Americans and single riders from Ireland, Germany, Denmark and Australia. But now Britain has the winner, as well as the world champion, Cavendish, and a good chance of repeating the successes of Beijing when the Olympic Games start with Saturday’s road race.
In recent days Wiggins’s victory – described by Sir Chris Hoy as “the greatest individual achievement in the history of British sport” – has been compared to Fred Perry’s hat-trick of Wimbledon singles titles, Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile, Denis Compton’s 3,816 runs in the summer of 1947, Geoff Hurst’s World Cup final hat-trick, the British Lions’ defeat of the All Blacks in New Zealand in 1971, Steve Redgrave’s gold medals in five consecutive Olympic Games, Lennox Lewis’s victories over Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson, and Paula Radcliffe’s marathon world record.
None of these comparisons quite fits. The one that does is the success of Mike Hawthorn in becoming Britain’s first Formula One world champion in 1958, after decades of dominance by French, Italian, German and South American drivers. Hawthorn’s success prefaced a flood of British grand prix success, from Jim Clark to Jenson Button. It may be that Wiggins’s success will have a similar effect.
Behind Sunday’s celebrations lies the structure of British Cycling, which has evolved over the past 20 years into an all-conquering machine. Dave Brailsford, its 48-year-old mastermind, guided the squad to an unprecedented haul of gold medals in Beijing and then supervised Cavendish’s successful bid for the world championship. Having attracted sponsorship worth around £25m a year from Sky – a deal brokered when James Murdoch, a cycling fan, was still running his father’s business – he exposed himself to ridicule within the international cycling community with a pledge made when he launched his Tour de France project.
“We made it clear that our ambition was to win this race in five years with a clean British rider,” he said this week, as the hour of vindication approached, “and that’s what we’ve done. It may be a surprise to everybody else but it’s not a surprise to us.”
Wiggins, a reformed party animal who stopped drinking and adopted a strict diet in order to lose around 10% of his body weight when he got serious about winning the Tour, had his own closing message to the world from the top step of the podium. “Have a safe journey home,” he told the exultant Brits among the multitude, “and don’t get too drunk.”
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