x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Noble Tour de France gesture eludes this knight Sir Bradley Wiggins

The Team Sky rider still wants to be head of the table at the world's most famous race instead of supporting a loyal men-at-arms Chris Froome, writes Will Batchelor.

Sir Bradley Wiggins hugs Team Sky teammate Chris Froome during last year's Tour de France, but will he be so embracing if he is no longer team leader at this year's event? Nathalie Magniez / AFP
Sir Bradley Wiggins hugs Team Sky teammate Chris Froome during last year's Tour de France, but will he be so embracing if he is no longer team leader at this year's event? Nathalie Magniez / AFP

He may be cycling's most recent knight but Sir Bradley Wiggins failed his first test of chivalric honour this week.

Sorry, I mean "Plain-old-Brad". That is how the coolest man on two wheels saw himself before his spectacular 2012 and that is how he prefers to be known today.

Plain-old-Brad only really accepted the knighthood to honour his teammates, he said. And rightly so. His glorious year was achieved through the sweat of not just his own noble brow but also that of his loyal men-at-arms, the fellow riders at Team Sky and Team GB.

Chris Froome was one of those loyal henchmen during Le Tour, beating a path for Sir Bradley - sorry, Plain-old-Brad - shielding him from the sharp elbows of rivals and even ferrying water bottles for his generously whiskered master from the back of the peloton.

None of that reflects badly on Plain-old-Brad, of course. That is how cycling teams work. I am not suggesting he is guilty of domestique abuse.

On the contrary, he was always the first to give credit where it was due, insisting that his victories were team efforts and thanking his lowly teammates.

In emotional scenes on the final day of Le Tour - traditionally a victory parade for the leader as he rides unopposed through Paris - Plain-old-Brad even made a point of leading out Mark Cavendish for a stage victory.

But talk is cheap and even grand gestures lose some sparkle when they cost the benefactor nothing. Yes, Plain-old-Brad worked harder than most Tour winners on that glorious July day, but he always knew the night belonged to him.

The real opportunity to prove his gratitude was this year's Tour, for which Froome is likely to be Team Sky's lead rider on a steeper route which plays to the younger rider's strengths.

So what finer way to show it than by volunteering as Froome's domestique? Surely this would be no sacrifice at all for such a reluctant hero, this humble team player, this Plain-old-Brad?

Er ... no.

"It is likely that Chris will be the leader this year," he said this week.

"But it does not mean I am going to work at the front of the peloton for 200 kilometres every day for him."

Yeah, sorry Chris. You have had your fine words and your knighthood-by-proxy. But surely you did not think he would actually break a sweat for you? Clearly, Plain-old-Brad is not quite plain or old enough for such drudgery.

Instead, he said he will focus most of his effort this year on the Giro d'Italia, a race in which - surprise surprise! - he is likely to be back on top of the pile.

In his defence, the final decision on such matters rests not with Plain-old-Brad but with Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford, who may see it as prudent tactics to run a smaller sub-team around Wiggins, in case Froome is taken out by injury or illness.

Also, it is worth noting that some cycling purists may have baulked at the notion of a Tour champion not actively defending his title.

And, let us be clear, Plain-old-Brad has not betrayed any trust here. This is not a repeat of Bernard Hinault's infamous betrayal of Greg LeMond in 1986, when "The Badger" (as the tenacious Hinault is nicknamed) acted more like a skunk by reneging on a contra-deal to ride in support of his American teammate.

And yet, for all of those mitigating points, I cannot help thinking that cycling has missed a golden opportunity to balance at least some of the damage wrought by Lance Armstrong's doping confession.

For the most repugnant feature of that confession was not the cheating itself - he is hardly the first cyclist to go down that route - but his callous disregard for his own teammates, whom he bullied into following his lead and excommunicated if they dared question it.

It was a dire story for cycling but imagine the PR coup if it had been followed up by a Tour winner selflessly laying down his Maillot Jaune for one of the guys who helped him to get it in the first place. Wishful thinking? Probably, but if anyone had the mettle for such self-sacrifice, it was the current, self-effacing champion.

But strip away the quirky stylings and Wiggins is a modern athlete, as ruthless and calculating as the next. We cannot expect him to act like some throwback to a fictional past of Arthurian legend, even if he is, nominally, a knight of the realm.

On this matter of honour, he really is just Plain-old-Brad.

 

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