Bradley Wiggins’ whole world is about to change. The image many thought they would never see, that of a British cyclist standing atop the podium on the Champs Elysées proudly clad in yellow, became a stunning reality yesterday. A nation which once treated the Tour de France, a global sporting monolith, with casual indifference, hailed a new hero. In achieving victory in this remarkable test of endurance, the spindly lad from Kilburn with a penchant for sideburns and mod culture, has exploded on the public consciousness. For much of continental Europe, where this two wheeled pursuit is almost a religion, he was already a household name. Britain has been slow to appreciate the allure of bike racing. Now, in the wake of this landmark triumph, nothing short of a revolution has been unleashed.
The statistics are truly remarkable. British riders clinched seven stage wins in this year’s race, including the prestigious final leg on the streets of Paris, a fourth consecutive such success for the lightning sprinter Mark Cavendish, and dominated the overall standings with Chris Froome the closest challenger to his team-mate Wiggins. Sky, the first UK professional squad to contest the Tour in a generation, controlled the destiny of the whole event with a meticulously co-ordinated plan. Even David Millar, the once disgraced drug cheat, confirmed his rehabilitation by getting in on the act. Yet just seven short years ago the country could not muster a single entrant and the sport was very much on the margins. The turnaround mimics that previously wrought on the track. Prior to Chris Boardman’s gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, no British cyclist had done similar for sixty years. By the Beijing Games of 2008, the Union flag was the emblem of the velodrome. The man who connects these astonishing shifts of fortune is performance coach Dave Brailsford.
Brailsford is one of a modern breed of trainers, alongside the likes of Sir Clive Woodward and Andy Flower, to take a scientific approach, analysing and number crunching every aspect of their charges’ output. This attention to detail, combined with the formulation of thorough strategies and targets, has raised levels of attainment to unimagined heights. In cycling, a neglected corner of the British sporting landscape, there were few preconceived ideas, few entrenched attitudes and perceptions to overcome. Brailsford and his predecessor Peter Keen were able to devise a blueprint for world domination without the weight of history on their shoulders. France, by contrast, struggles instinctively to embrace radical innovation, so central is the bike to the national heritage. Having identified and nurtured the talent available, and with funding secured to back the enterprise, these fresh methods have been responsible for establishing Britain as a world leader on the track, so the logical progression was to translate this masterplan to comparable effect in a more brutal and demanding environment.
The image of road racing has been sullied by the ever present spectre of doping. Many scoffed when Brailsford announced his newly formed team’s ambition to win the Tour within five years, and all the more when he emphasised the need to do it clean. The process of overcoming this scourge is far from complete, as Frank Schleck’s failed test only last week highlighted, but the climate now prevalent in the professional game has made this an opportune time to launch the project. Sky have positioned themselves as standard bearers for a new beginning, an era free from the endemic scandals which so destroyed reputations. Wiggins and Cavendish, in particular, represent role models for a different kind of aspiration, far removed from that which enmeshed Millar in the darkest of times. The challenge now is to build on this spectacular accomplishment, to cement cycling’s position as a mainstream vocation.
The possibilities are manifold. Sport England reports a boom in participation with membership of British Cycling having doubled in the past four years; the industry is reckoned to be worth £2.9 billion to the national economy. At a time of recession, bicycle related spending and investment was already bucking the trend. This upsurge is now certain to continue as the exploits of the domestic contingent in the Tour should inspire a whole new crop of youngsters to take up the pastime, eager to emulate their stirring deeds. Since, for most children, learning to ride a bike is a right of passage, inclusivity is part of the sport’s appeal. The health and fitness benefits dovetail nicely with Government policy, while the potential implications for transport infrastructure could be most significant of all. Traditionally, cyclists have been relegated to pariah status on Britain’s roads. The legacy of this defining feat might transcend initial assumptions. Changing an established outlook takes time, effort and patience. Brailsford and his colleagues have proved that unlikely transformations are possible.
In the short term though we can reflect upon and enjoy a genuinely momentous achievement. The plaudits heaped upon Wiggins are entirely merited. Like Bannister’s four minute mile or 1966 and all that, this is a watershed moment for British sporting endeavour. There will, however, be little time for those whose travails over the past three weeks have so illuminated our miserable summer, to rest on their laurels and bask in the unaccustomed adulation. Attention now shifts to the next goal on more familiar terrain, and with the lure of gold medals both on road and track destined to keep cycling fixed in the limelight for some time yet. London 2012 is just days away. Bring on the Olympics!