Britain’s prolific Olympian talks almost as well as he cycles, making us love him all the more
Bradley Wiggins is unique in British sporting history in that, every time he opens his mouth, you like him more. He is so good at cycling that it wouldn’t matter if he didn’t want to talk. But sometimes I think that he’s so good at talking, it wouldn’t matter if he didn’t win all the cycling. Already, his sideburns have taken on a talismanic status of their own, so that people stick them on as a charm for other sporting events, a rabbit’s foot made of beard. He’s so great, in short, that the last thing he would want is for you to forget about Chris Froome. Yet there it is.
Froome arrived at the finish in his suit, looking like a flying seal; he was, for a time, in first place; the commentator had been yelling for ages about how he was scorching and sizzling and burning, a constellation of metaphors that all seemed to come from a barbecue. Yet there it was, his bronze totally snuck up on the breath-baited crowd. It was like waiting for New Year’s Eve – no, it was like waiting for your GCSE results, only to find – no, sod it, there is no working analogy. It was what it was: the nation waited for its pride, its hairy pearl, to make medal history for a British athlete, and then found there was even more to celebrate. Nobody stole anybody’s thunder. Joy is a limitless resource, a use it or lose it muscle. The more you cheer, the happier you feel.
Sorry, before we get to all (both) the medals, raining down like (two, heavy) sploshes of medal, there was the zippy matter of this race.
Look, I’m sure they’ve given it a lot of thought, but I have a few quibbles with the way time trials are run. I get that there is a fairness issue when they all start at the same time, and it involves a lot of wind-based strategising, but frankly, when they all start separately, there’s no sense of scale. It’s like taking a picture of a baby bat without a pound coin next to it. You can’t tell how small it is, and you can’t tell how fast they’re going. The only comparative judgment you can make is that none of their thighs are as big as Chris Hoy’s (they don’t need the big thighs. You only need them if you’re planning to cycle sideways up a vertical slope. If they’d had to devise Spiderman without his webbing function, they would have given him Hoy’s thighs, though good luck getting your crime-fighting onesie over those, Spider).
Sorry, off the thighs, eyes on the road: many skinny thighs and skinnier arms, and the shiny, duck egg blue of Kazakhstan, that makes Vinokourov look like one of the air hostesses out of Fifth Element.
It’s also a little bit insensitive, if you ask me, making the least successful ones start first, so that they have that giddy illusion of arriving first, only to remember that it’s because they left first. They’re probably used to it.
From the crowd’s perspective, none of this mattered. It didn’t matter that the spectator experience was watching 30 odd brightly coloured shapes whizz past, then spending the next 47 minutes wondering what was happening in Esher. If this in itself were enough to stimulate the human mind, we would never have had to invent language, we could have just lain about, gazing at birds.
But there is too much thrill in the air to worry about the view or the narrative – and nobody had to wonder who was winning because, obviously, Bradley Wiggins was. “The great thing about cycling”, Wiggins said afterwards (brace yourself, he is about to become more likeable still) “is that anyone can watch it. We all know about the Olympic ticketing – inside here, it can all become a bit of a prawn sandwich fest. Ultimately, all the real fans are outside the gates.”
Chris Froome is a more taciturn creature, with a complexion a little bit like Wayne Rooney. The race over, he sat in his bronze throne looking like his hamstrings hurt (they did hurt). Bradley Wiggins sat in his gold throne looking sardonic (in truth, all the thrones were gold), and the German rider Tony Martin sat on the other side with his silver. They looked like they were just about to enter a three-way civil partnership organised by Posh and Becks’s wedding planner. This throne business is between Hampton Court and its conscience.
Just when people had started to talk about whether or not London had the lesser-spotted home disadvantage, the purpose of raw enthusiasm suddenly showed itself. The British cyclists, while not gushers themselves, appear to quite like it. “It was really something special, just enormous, the support,” Froome said. “It’s something that I don’t think I’ll ever experience again”. Wiggins said the same, “coming back round the roundabout in Kingston, I’m never going to experience anything like that in my entire career. It’s topped off.” I guess they’re used to this in France, but I find it droll to imagine anything momentous or life-affirming happening on a roundabout.
In a bid to articulate the gladness, people were instantly talking about making Bradley Wiggins a Sir, or Sports Personality of the Year – both of which accolades sounded significantly less of a big deal than everything he’s already won, like gifting someone the keys to Swanage because they’d won a Nobel Prize. It is well-known that he’s not interested in that kind of thing – “I don’t think I’d ever use it, I’d probably just keep it in a drawer,” he said of a prospective knighthood, when someone from the Telegraph brought it up. But if baubles and gongs seem necessary but insufficient, what else could a crowd do, to express an adulation a bit more complicated than jingoistic jubilance – we know you are not just superman, the crowd inside and out of the prawn-sandwich-zone said, with their eyes. We know you are also a Good Bloke, and how rare it is for supermen even to start off as Good Blokes, let alone stay that way. Well, there’s not much you can do, you can’t throw your pants at him, he wouldn’t like it. So it was settled that we would all yell. When he walked along, when he got his medal, when we alighted the podium, when he gave a dignitary a friendly pat, when he stood up, when he sat down, we yelled in slightly off-putting jubilation. He drinks vodka and tonic, by the way, in his downtime – if you are thinking of toasting the man in a way that he’d appreciate.