Wiggins makes British history at Tour de France

Published 9:16 am Monday, July 23, 2012

PARIS — Twenty-three years ago, Bradley Wiggins marveled as Greg LeMond blazed a trail as America’s first Tour de France winner. Now, he has blazed his own.

The 32-year-old from gritty northwest London became Britain’s first winner of cycling’s greatest race on Sunday, ending a 75-year drought for his country with an imperial conquest of the roads in cross-Channel neighbor France.

Wiggins had locked up the yellow jersey a day earlier by winning the final time-trial and Sunday’s ride onto the Champs-Elysees was largely ceremonial for him.

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But putting the coveted shirt to work one last time, he added a touch of class by providing a leadout to Sky teammate and fellow Briton Mark Cavendish to get his third Tour stage victory — the 23rd of his career — in a sprint. The Isle of Man native is a main contender to win road race gold at the Olympics in London, which has been a hovering presence over the peloton in this Tour.

Wiggins congratulated his teammates after crossing the line, hugged his wife, and clutched the hands of their two children.

A soprano sang “God Save The Queen”, and Wiggins thanked the crowd with a touch of British humor.

“Cheers, have a safe journey home, don’t get too drunk,” he quipped after hoisting the winner’s bouquet, with the Arc de Triomphe behind him.

“It’s been a magical couple of weeks for the team and for British cycling,” Wiggins said. “Some dreams come true. My mother over there, she’s now — her son has won the Tour de France.”

Then, with a Union Jack around his neck like a scarf, Wiggins sipped Champagne for the processional lap on the famed Paris avenue, trailed by his son with “Allez Wiggo” — Go Wiggo — written on his cheeks.

This 99th Tour will be remembered for successes of other Britons too, like all-rounder Christopher Froome, who was second overall, Cavendish and Scottish veteran David Millar — who won seven stages between them, a Tour record for Britain.

Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali rounded out the podium in third. France’s Thomas Voeckler won the polka-dot jersey for best climber, Peter Sagan of Slovakia takes home the green jersey for best sprinter and Tejay van Garderen, a 23-year-old American, won the white jersey given to the best young rider.

It was a race of disappointment for Cadel Evans of Australia, who struggled in the climbs and failed to repeat his 2011 Tour victory. And a swan song for George Hincapie of the United States, who set the record of 17th Tour participations.

Wiggins had come into the race as the favorite, but he knew all too well how anything can happen over more than 2,100 miles of racing over three weeks. Crashes, sickness and doping scandals all thinned the pack. Questions were rife about the unity of his powerful Sky team — he put those to rest.

His victory was all the more remarkable because it culminated the transformation of Wiggins from three-time Olympic champion on the track to road-race star. His early years had given him the sustained power for the Tour time-trial — which he dominated twice this year — but his ability to scale Alps and Pyrenees ascents was in question. There too, Wiggins came through.

His victory for Britain was no tiny feat. It’s not just the first British victory, but the first podium finish — and this year, Britain has two — since Britons began riding in the race in 1937. A total of 59 have competed since then.

Wiggins, who was fourth in 2009 and 24th in 2010, came in with a thirst for victory after crashing out last year. He showed superb form, with three stage-race victories this season. And this layout was about as favorable as it could come for him: Heavy on time-trials, lighter — relatively — on climbs.

Sky was methodical in its march to victory — evoking at times some uncomfortable comparisons with the dominant teams of Lance Armstrong. The seven-time Tour champion was at times a presence in the background at this race, with news of his battle against U.S. doping charges that threaten his legacy. Four of his former teammates who were riding the Tour came under a media spotlight amid a news report they had struck deal with USADA.

This Tour, as in many in recent years, took its licks from doping.

On the first rest day, Remy Di Gregorio of Cofidis was arrested and ousted from the race in a French anti-doping probe, accused of possessing doping products or equipment prohibited without medical justification.

The bigger bombshell came on the second rest day: Frank Schleck, the RadioShack Nissan Trek leader from Luxembourg who placed third last year, was ousted after he tested positive for the banned diuretic Xipamide on July 14. He has denied any wrongdoing.

The impact of doping was felt even before the first starter’s gun in Liege, Belgium: Two-time Tour champion Alberto Contador was sitting out to complete a two-year doping ban linked to the 2010 Tour. The Spaniard is by far the sport’s biggest star.

Wiggins too has borne the impact of doping’s ravages on the sport. In 2007, one of the most scandal-ridden Tours in recent memory, his Cofidis team pulled out after rider Cristian Moreni tested positive for testosterone — incensing Wiggins so much that he swore he’d never wear its jersey again.

If this year’s Tour was boring compared to others in recent years — when use of performance enhancers juiced up many riders — Wiggins said it may be because the sport is changing amid the fight against doping, and that fans perhaps should not expect as many incredible performances as in years past. He has been a vocal critic of doping in cycling.

Some fretted the lack of panache — flair — on the mountain climbs.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t have either Andy Schleck or Alberto Contador here this year, but next year, they’ll both be back — hopefully — and that will give it the panache,” UCI chief Pat McQuaid told The Associated Press. Andy Schleck, Frank’s brother and runner-up last year, was out with an injury.

With “conservative” riders like Wiggins, “you weren’t going to see that panache. But he’s a deserving winner, as every winner of the Tour de France deserves to win the Tour de France,” he said.

While he made his name as a track star — Britain’s forte in cycling — Wiggins is a student of the road race. As a kid, he lined his bedroom walls with posters of cycling greats like five-time Tour winner Miguel Indurain.

“My first Tour de France memory was obviously watching LeMond win in ‘89, and then after that I was hooked on cycling,” said Wiggins. “All through my early teens I was watching Indurain win the Tour. That was my reason to not go to school in the morning, to watch the cycling.”

“I never imagined then that I, in the center of London in a — well, I can say, dangerous — neighborhood with a lot of crime, that one day I could one day maybe win the Tour,” he told France-2 TV before the Tour. “It’s a little bit of a dream.”

Wiggins says he straddled the Armstrong era: By the time the Texan started his run of Tour victories, “I was already into cycling … so I sort of stopped watching in those years.”

But they were similar: They love their music; (Wiggins is a fan of The Jam and his trademark sideburns have drawn comparisons to those of Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher.) Both were raised by their mothers — with fathers absent. Armstrong once reportedly advised Wiggins about how to handle the media — counsel that he’s appeared to keep to himself.

Wiggins had a hot-and-cold relationship with the media during this Tour, notably when asked about comparisons to Sky and the Armstrong teams, he laced into anonymous critics on Twitter with an expletive-laden tirade.

After his final press conference, Wiggins acknowledged that he had “never trained to do well in the media,” and thanked reporters for “putting up with me” and “my mood swings at times.”

On Sunday, though, he was back at it — swatting at photographers hoping to get a quick shot of the victor on the Champs-Elysees.

The bigger Armstrong influence appears to have been on his coach.

Journalist Richard Moore, in his book “Sky’s The Limit” on the team, writes of the apparent fascination that team manager Dave Brailsford — a guru of British cycling — had for the Armstrong approach to the Tour.

Sky studied the race, and noted Armstrong formulas like keeping the leader in the front to avoid crashes, or tweaking at the margins on training or effort management to get an edge that would add up against rivals.

Wiggins’ father, Gary, was an Australian cyclist who was mostly absent from Bradley’s life. He was a “boozer and brawler” who died in 2008 — and had been beaten and dumped in a street in New South Wales, Moore wrote.

Wiggins, asked Tuesday about what his father might have made of his Tour success, replied: “It’s difficult to say. That depends on whether he was sober or … “

Was his father in the back of his mind, just a little?

“Not really. I’ve put that one to bed,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins, too, had his run-ins with drink. After winning gold at the 2004 Olympics, he signed with a French team, moved to western Nantes, and lived day-to-day, at times with debt, over a Chinese restaurant.

“I was drunk all the time between races because I was alone in France, 21, 22 years old,” Wiggins recalled, “The only thing to do at night was to buy a six-pack of beer bottles.”

His life started to change when he became a father.

“I have to try something to make a little money,” he recalled. “I had two young children at the time, and I said, ‘I can’t live like this, I have one euro in my pocket’ … and it started there.”

He lost weight. At the Beijing Games, he weighed 181 pounds; at the Tour, he was down to 157. He drinks almost nothing now, he says.

He could also contend for gold in the Olympic time trial. So as he returned to the Sky bus, he jumped up on a team car, bowed and took a swig from a bottle … of yellow rehydration drink — not Champagne.

But he could be forgiven for sipping a bit on the Champs-Elysees.