Bradley Wiggins: “I’m detached from cycling now”

Britain’s first Tour de France winner tells The Big Issue how he is moving on from his rock ’n’ roll haircut, cycling heroics and the controversy that left him feeling like he was in the “eye of the storm”

At 16 I was living on an estate in Kilburn.Cycling wasn’t like it is now, it wasn’t a popular sport – it was non-existent. But I was completely obsessed with it. I spent most of my time in school reading cycling magazines. I’d pretty much given up on school, maybe stupidly, but I knew what I wanted to do as a career. I probably had the ability to go to university and get degrees and all that but I just wasn’t interested. My art teacher asked me when I was 12 what plans I had, reminding me GCSEs were only a few years away. I said, I want to wear the yellow jersey on the Tour [de France], and I want to win an Olympic gold. She just laughed. Maybe it was stupid, but I believed it 100 per cent.

Because of the nature of cycling, wearing Lycra, that sort of thing, it came with a lot of bigotry, homophobia. It wasn’t like it is now. We didn’t have national heroes like [Mark] Cavendish who made the sport cool. You didn’t see a lot of teenage boys wandering through housing estates wearing Lycra. I had to run for my life a lot of the time. I had to wear my tracksuit until I got out of the estate or I’d have got my head kicked in. It was a lot of hassle, and looking back I don’t know where I got the strength from. I witnessed a lot of horrific things as a kid, but I didn’t consider them horrific at the time. I saw someone being stabbed and murdered, but that was a regular occurrence. If I saw that now I’d be traumatised, but then it was just a mundane, everyday thing.

I was very lucky – my success came around the time of the London Olympics, and I’d won the Tour just the week before. So my winning was a seminal moment in British sport, I think it really was. Straight after that Olympic win, I knew it couldn’t get any better. How could it get better? So afterwards you’re constantly asking yourself these loaded questions, where do you go next? If I could go back, I’d put an arm around myself after 2012 and keep it there for a few years. Every time I walk out the door I’m hero-worshipped for something that happened seven years ago, but no one ever asks, ‘How are you now Brad? Are you OK?’ So I’d put an arm around that post-2012 Brad and tell him it’ll end up OK.

I don’t give a shit about my cycling career now.I’m just detached from it, I don’t want to live off the back of it. I live off of being me, and I’m happy in my own skin. I’ve gone full circle, I watch it as a fan now. I don’t expect to be recognised or anything. Some people like to cling on to those moments. I see it on social media every day, people who are supposed to be your friends, still celebrating that moment. ‘Seven years ago today my mate Bradley won this race in London..’ And I’m like, it was seven years ago, get over it mate. But a lot of people get comfort from keeping you in a place that inspires them so much. We do that a lot to our athletes, everyone wants them to stay the same forever. I think that’s why so many of them disintegrate, like Paul Gascoigne. It’s nice to be remembered but I can’t keep waltzing in with a rock’n’roll haircut and a suede suit on, drunk. I’ve moved on from that person. Everything ends, everything has to end.

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Wiggins took Olympic individual pursuit gold in Athens in 2004 (Credit: Getty)

I had quite a tough period [during the controversy over accusations that he had taken a performance-enhancing substance, including a 14-month investigation launched in 2016 by UK anti-doping which Wiggins called a “malicious witch-hunt”]. I felt like I was in the eye of the storm, and I was trying to prove a negative. But the fact that I’m back working in the sport [as a television cycling pundit] is testament to the fact that I did nothing wrong. The people who are responsible for what happened are now on a charm offensive but people aren’t stupid. I’m not angry though, I’ll be involved with cycling a lot longer than those people, because I love it. Hopefully that whole time will be one of the worst things that will ever happen to me, in a sporting context. Some horrific things that I don’t want to discuss now have happened to me recently and they’ve made me realise what’s important in life. They’ve made me able to look at the cycling world without an ego, and just be happy for the new guys coming through, rather than begrudging them their achievements and worrying about holding on to my record. I’m happy now about the way I’m heading.

There came a time when I just wanted to get out of the spotlight. I couldn’t do what someone like Roger Federer has done. He’s phenomenal. I think he has this great balance in his life, with his wife and kids, and he sees the sport for what it is, and puts it into perspective. I’ve seen him lose Wimbledon finals, and he’s disappointed, but he goes home, recalibrates, and comes back inspired. I wasn’t able to do that. I got caught up in the moment. I got really disappointed and couldn’t come back. I had two kids, we lived in London, everything was heightened cos the kids went to school and everyone knew who their dad was. My kids are my priority. I wasn’t able to cope with all that external pressure.

DID YOU KNOW…

In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

When I retired, three years ago, I didn’t know what I was going to do next. After you’ve had your big moment and you’re trying to forget about it, everyone else’s perception of you has changed. You’re the same person on the inside, but externally everything is different. I had a lot of self-loathing because I had this public identity but I didn’t know who I really was. I’d only ever been a cyclist, since I was 12 years old. When I was offered a TV role I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. It took me a while to find myself, redefine myself, and come back to cycling without an ego. So now I can do the TV job, but I’ve also enrolled to do an Open University degree in social work. I want to help people. Those horrific things I saw when I was growing up… nothing can shock me now, and I want to use that mental toughness working as a social worker. And when people say, oh, you’re that cyclist, I’ll say, no, that was a few years ago. I’m a social worker now.

My family have just had to live with it all. They have the person I am now, which was always the end goal I think. They could have lost me to the world of celebrity but I didn’t get carried away with it all. My kids had a hard time yes, but kids are so resilient. And it’s a good life experience actually, to learn that not everyone is nice, and you’ll encounter some horrible people at various points in your life, and all you can control is your own behaviour and how you treat people. It’s not a bad lesson to learn, that some people are just cunts.

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Wiggins Tour de France victory in 2012 broke the barrier for British riders (Credit: Getty)

If I could have one last conversation with anyone it would probably be my dad. I never really ironed things out with him. He left the family when I was one, and I didn’t meet him again until I was 18. And I only met him because he saw that I was successful and he came back into my life. We never really hit it off. Then he got murdered when I was 28 [an open verdict was returned on former Australian cyclist Gary Wiggins’ death from head trauma in 2008] and I never went to the funeral. I guess there are times in my life now when I’d like to sit down with him. One of the reasons I didn’t get on with him was that I was becoming a better person and a better athlete than him and he didn’t like that. But you’re not in competition with your kids, you should just be proud of them no matter what they’ve done, good or bad. But I don’t live with regrets and I don’t look back, just forwards now.

If I could relive any time in my life it would be the year after my daughter was born. I was about 27. We had two kids by then and I was racing, doing the Tour. But I wasn’t famous. I could come and go as I pleased, unrecognised. I wasn’t particularly successful on the Tour yet, but I was doing the sport I loved. It was a very happy time. Then I got famous. Then the kids got older and they had their own problems and you do what you can. But back in 2007, when we lived in a little modest house and we’d sit in our little garden with the kids…  life was perfect.

Bradley Wiggins’ An Evening With… UK tour starts on September 6, with tickets available from myticket.co.uk

Images: Adam Southwell