"Brad’s had an idea,” his manager, Julian, announces affectionately but perhaps semi-wearily as he arrives at the Rapha Cycle Club in Manchester.
Brad – Sir Bradley Wiggins: winner of seven Olympic medals, our first Tour de France champion, the only man ever to talk about drawing the raffle numbers on the Champs-Élysées – has a lot of ideas these days. This specific one relates to this morning’s Esquire photo shoot. The previous evening at dinner, he decided that he fancied recreating the portrait of Joy Division that Kevin Cummins shot for NME in 1979. The original image showed Curtis, Sumner, Hook and the other one mooching on the brow of the pedestrian bridge over Princess Parkway in Hulme, a carpet of snow leading up to them. For 2015, Wiggins would stand in for Ian Curtis and three teammates from the new Wiggins racing squad would make up the rest of the band.
At the Rapha Cycle Club the next morning, everyone agrees this is an excellent idea. Everyone also agrees it would be a considerable pain in the rump to fit in on a day already over-extended with commitments. Everyone secretly hopes that Brad will have forgotten the idea overnight or, more likely, come with a handful of new ones.
[Above: Bradley Wiggins on his way to gold in the men's individual pursuit final, Stuttgart, July 2003]
When Wiggins does rock up — the only way to describe the arrival of a man in a chunky white cardigan, sous-vide skinny jeans, his hair defying Newtonian physics — he is early and relaxed. These are two qualities that have not always been in evidence during his career. He has endured a difficult couple of years since winning the Tour de France in 2012 with Team Sky and then claiming his fourth gold medal for Great Britain in the time-trial road race at the London Olympics; a knighthood and runaway victory in the most over-qualified BBC Sports Personality of the Year ever followed. Soon, however, Wiggins was usurped in the Team Sky pecking order by Chris Froome — the Ed to his David — and it started to look like his career was on the slide. He grew an exuberant beard, never an especially promising indication that someone isn’t enduring some kind of mid-life meltdown.
[Above: Sir Bradley Wiggins competing in the paris-Roubaix in northern France on 12 April this year, where he eventually finished 18th]
But 35-year-old Wiggins appears to be turning it round. He uncoupled from Team Sky in April and announced the formation of Wiggins, a team with the modest aim of being unlike any other sporting enterprise in the world. On 7 June, he will see how far he can cycle in one hour round London’s Olympic velodrome, a masochistic endeavour that he insists he is looking forward to. After that, a swansong on the track at the 2016 Rio Olympics, then retirement. Since 2012, his career has been guided by Simon Fuller’s XIX Management; they believe that one day he could emulate another of their clients, David Beckham.
As Wiggins takes a seat at the counter of the Rapha café, orders a cappuccino, I squint and try to imagine a new Beckham. The vision, I’ll be honest, doesn’t come fully formed: Wiggins is handsome, no doubt, but his limbs are wild and rubbery like Mr Tickle’s. I just don’t see him launching a range of signature Y-fronts any time soon. More than that, he’s just too much of an oddball — and I mean that as a compliment.
It’s Christmas Day, 1997, you’re 17. You cycle 80-odd miles from Kilburn in North London to Pontins in Camber Sands where your nan is cooking Christmas dinner. Did that seem like a weird thing to do?
"I never really thought of it like that at the time. My mum thought it was a good idea because the roads are empty on Christmas Day. So setting off from Kilburn, over Vauxhall Bridge, down through Brixton and Herne Hill and then straight out of London, there was nothing on the roads, jumping red lights. You couldn’t get lost, aside from ending up on the motorway, which I did at a certain point.
"But yeah, when I was 17 I was so focused on what I wanted to be, and I just thought that no one else would be doing that. I thrived off that. I always found that the more extreme and the more eccentric I was, that’s what would separate me. I always felt that I needed that separation otherwise I’d just be like everybody else."
Do you still feel that need to be different now?
"Yeah, I guess. I hadn’t really thought about it, but that has always stuck with me, really. It’s not a rebellious streak, it’s more of a need to be different. On and off the bike. I just felt that if the team is doing seven hours, I’d want to do eight. I’d always need to do more. I knew that would make me better than everybody else. It has dwindled a bit as I’ve got older. Things change, your priorities change in life. So I’d never think of riding 100 miles on Christmas Day now, because I’ve got two kids and it’s selfish. And I’ve been successful and it’s almost like you don’t need to do that."
Do you think you changed as a person after 2012?
"I think so. Maybe not changed as a person, but I think people’s perception of you changes a lot. Everything I achieve affects my family as well and suddenly my kids’ dad became the most famous man in the country for a couple of weeks. So even walking through Manchester, it was just ridiculous. But I was very conscious of that as well and I obviously felt quite guilty, so that reflected in my mood with the team and the way I was riding. I almost resented all that success."
[Above: The six riders in Team Wiggins, minus their founder and namesake, debut at the Tour de Normandie, France 2015]
So it wasn’t everything you dreamed of?
"I really struggled in the year after. At the time I didn’t realise it, but looking back now with the Olympics, it was all fun and joy and whenever you got a mention in Olympic circles it was all about the sport and about winning it. Whereas the Tour de France, it was January 2013 that Lance did his Oprah thing, and I was the current winner of the Tour, so it was all in a negative vein. Whichever bike race I went to as the Tour de France champion, it was always under this cloud of Lance Armstrong. I just ended up despising it. I couldn’t wait to get rid of that title of Tour de France champion."
But you can understand why people are suspicious of all professional cyclists, though?
"I never wanted to become a martyr for, “I’m a clean winner of the Tour de France.” I sort of didn’t care what people thought. I knew that I’d done it, it was a challenge to me and I achieved it and I couldn’t invest the time and effort in proving to everyone that I’d done it properly. I just found it draining, really. A few years on now, looking back, I’m a lot prouder of that achievement, but at the time, I hated it, really.
"And obviously Chris Froome went into that Tour de France, dominated it and then he got all the questions asked of him. Then [Alberto] Contador came back, and now we’ve got the defending champion at the moment [Vincenzo Nibali] whose team [Astana] has had all sorts of problems [including multiple doping offences and allegations of bribery]. It seems to follow with the Tour de France, unfortunately. So yeah, it’s a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Tour."
Before you started Wiggins, did you ever consider going to another team and riding the Tour? Going up against Team Sky and Froome?
"Yeah, last summer I did, definitely. But then I came round to the fact that I didn’t actually want to do that."
"Because I’d done it once. I like the idea of switching and changing. I never thought about trying to win two Tours de France or three; I thought about winning a Tour de France. And after I’d done that, I didn’t really feel the desire to try and win it again. So I brought it back to myself and thought, “What do I want to do?” That whole legacy, people saying, “How do you want to be remembered when you retire?” I never wanted to be a team captain on A Question of Sport and just some bloke who could tell funny jokes and be a bit stupid. I always thought that I wanted to be a lot deeper than that. I don’t want to end up making documentaries for ITV4 jumping off a cliff or something. I don’t see that as a legacy."
Wiggins has said that his life wouldn’t make a bad movie and his minders at XIX Management are people who can presumably make that happen. Certainly, the synopsis is a decent one: a kid grows up on a council estate in North London and his father, a professional cyclist, leaves him and his mother when he’s two. The dad, an Australian, is a bit of a wrong ’un: he’s a drinker who smuggles performance-enhancing amphetamines in his infant son’s nappies.
[Above: Sir Bradley Wiggins photographed for Esquire in Manchester, March 2015]
Aged 12, the kid watches the cycling at the 1992 Olympics on the telly, in particular, Chris Boardman in the individual pursuit; it turns out that event was one of his dad’s specialisms, too. He tells his art teacher at school that he’s going to compete in the Olympics and win the Tour de France. The teacher tells him to get back to his drawing. Father and son eventually reconnect, but the relationship doesn’t hold and when the father dies after a drunken brawl in Australia, his son doesn’t attend the funeral.
It was Lance Armstrong who said about cycling: “I didn’t do it for pleasure, I did it for pain.” What is perhaps most remarkable about Wiggins’ personal history is how unexceptional it is among bike racers. Many of the greatest riders have life stories that read like outlandish soap-opera plots. Yet somehow cycling, the most relentlessly brutal of sports, can also be cleansing, even liberating.
Have you ever worked out what it is about cycling that appeals to you?
"I like the extremes it takes you to. I’ve always liked that. I guess that’s just a trait in me. You never know how hard to tighten something until it breaks. Like a screw: you’re tightening your saddle… And that’s the same with the human body: how hard can you train, or how far can you go before you go, “Ooh, I need a day off”? Because it’s amazing what the body is capable of doing.
"When you’re getting ready for the Tour, you can starve yourself to get down to a certain weight. Yet you’re still able to go and do six, seven hours on a bike without eating. I like the torture."
You like the torture? You lost 6kg before the 2009 Tour de France, right?
"In some strange ways because it’s for a greater cause, not just doing it for the hell of it. You’re doing it for a performance gain. Certainly with the weight thing, as hard as it was to do, and it’s certainly not the way I would live my life in the normal world, but to see a minute’s gain on a hour-long climb for being a kilo lighter. Or being 200 watts stronger on an explosive sprint at the other end of the spectrum. I like the what-you-put-in-you-get-out philosophy."
The world hour record is a particularly extreme examination of that. Everyone who does it says it’s the most miserable hour of their life. Sarah Storey, Britain’s most successful female Paralympian, said that after her failed attempt in February and then said she’d never do it again…
"And she’s had a baby. So that’s quite something, isn’t it? I said that to my wife: “I can’t believe I’m going to do it.” And she said, “Try having a baby.”"
But that doesn’t put you off?
"I’ve spoken to Chris Boardman about it at length because obviously he’s done quite a few of them. He said the first 20 minutes are easy, then it starts biting and then the last 20 minutes are just the worst thing you are ever going to go through [laughs]. But that doesn’t frighten me, there’s something about that I look forward to, in a really strange way. There’s an attraction in that, it’s something that I want to experience."
Don’t you sometimes stare at your thumbs, where you’ve got the initials of your children’s names tattooed?
"I find it a focus point, a motivation, particularly when I’m time-trialling. Sometimes in those moments — say, 10 minutes before you get up to start the hour record and there’s 6,000 people in the velodrome and live TV — it can feel like life or death. Like you’re going to the gallows.
"And in some ways that’s just a reminder: actually, hang on a minute, this isn’t life and death, just bring it back here, all you’ve got to do is ride a bike for an hour. You’re not going to get shot if you don’t do it. Or if I got 40 minutes into it and the pain was so much that I felt like giving up, they are like little reminders that you’re not necessarily doing it just for yourself. Yeah, what kind of example is that to set?"
There’s a story in your autobiography about how your wife, Cath, would lift your suitcases into the car, so you could save all your energy for cycling. Does that still happen?
"No, not anymore. That was more before I left for the Tour, you’d done all this work and you’re lifting a 28-kilo case into the car and Cath would say, “I’ll do that, you’ll injure yourself or something.” But you almost become wrapped in cotton wool, too fragile to do anything, really. It’s quite a selfish existence when you’re a professional sportsman at that level. You’re somehow encouraged to become an arsehole."
And you didn’t want to be an arsehole?
"It’s like, “I’m not getting up, I’m going to have an extra hour in bed because I’m a professional cyclist.” If any other human being did that, if a husband did that, they’d be an arsehole or a shit husband or a shit father. They won’t take the kids to the park because they’re laying on the sofa. Whereas as an athlete, you’re excused: “Oh, he can’t do that! He can’t go to the park, he needs to rest his legs.” And I find that quite difficult. Like I love taking my kids to school in the morning, I don’t see that as a chore. I don’t want to miss out on that, because I think I’d regret that in years to come.
"And I think in 2012 I just lived the life of a complete selfish arsehole. I was so focused on winning the Tour. A lot of people use that as an excuse, they’ll carry on cycling because they think, “I’ll have an easier life then.” I never wanted to be like that. I try and put as much time and effort into my marriage and being a father as I do into cycling. I’ve been married for 12 years now and a lot of sportsmen end up retiring and getting divorced because they try to carry on living the life they led, which is a selfish one, really. Thinking they’re the priority and their existence is above everyone else’s."
And you don’t feel that now?
"With the new team, Wiggins, we’re not elite, we’re not above everyone else. This is an accessible sport and the only thing that makes us different is that we can perhaps ride a bike faster than someone else. That’s what is so good about cycling. Families don’t go out on a Sunday and play rugby together: mum playing second row or whatever. But they can go out on their bikes together. That’s really unique."
It’s unseasonably warm for both Manchester and spring; Wiggins looks out the window, starts to feel a pang that he’s not out on his bike. “I should be training today,” he sighs. “So I’ve got to go home tonight and do three hours on the turbo trainer. There’s no excuse.” The Joy Division homage will wait for another day.
The reason he isn’t out riding is that he has to do publicity for the launch of the Wiggins racing squad. Ostensibly the team — which is sponsored by Sky and outfitted by Rapha — has been created to give Wiggins the best chance of winning gold in the team pursuit at the 2016 Olympics. It will race on the road this summer, mostly in Britain, and next year it will go into the velodrome to ensure Wiggins and some of his team-mates are ready for Rio.
[Above: Limberin up in preparation for the gruelling Paris-Roubaix race -known as the "Hell fo the North" - in which the Olympic champion finished in nith place, April 2014]
This, however, makes Team Wiggins sound like more of a clinical, results-driven operation than it really is. The team is clearly a passion project, one its creator hopes will long outlast his own career on a bike. He has been closely involved in the design of the kit, drawing inspiration from the cyclist Tom Simpson, Britain’s first world champion, as well as Bobby Moore and The Who. He wants everything about Wiggins to feel iconic.
“I’d love to find the next Bradley Wiggins,” the current Bradley Wiggins says. Then, out of the window on the Rapha Cycle Club, he spots a busker, clearly down on his luck. “But I’d also like to find the fella over there playing the guitar, just change their life, because I think that sport and cycling in particular is the best way to do that.”
Is it not going to be a bit of a comedown now for you going to race in little events in places like Motherwell?
"There’s always this feeling that as an ex-winner of the Tour de France, you couldn’t step down a few of the ranks and come back and have a British team and race in the UK. People would perceive that as a step down. It’s a bit like Wayne Rooney going and playing in the third division. But I thought, “Well, actually, why not?” The British scene is thriving at home and also it would bring more kudos to the British system."
Will Wiggins feel very different to Team Sky?
"I hope so. It’s not about us winning races; we are not results-based. Obviously, we have goals for Rio, to try and win Olympic gold, but we don’t need to win races to keep our sponsors, to keep funding coming in. We want to be destructive and be everything other teams aren’t, really. I think of some of the great sports teams around the world, particularly the All Blacks, and how admired they are in New Zealand. They are like the people’s team. It might be a bit aspirational, but certainly we want a feel of that in this country with this team."
How are you going to achieve that?
"I guess the long of it is that this team is a reflection of me and my personality and my character and my morals and the things I believe in and the things I don’t believe in. That’s why my name’s on the jersey, that’s why it’s not Sky, Rapha, British Telecom, whatever. It’s Team Wiggins and that encapsulates everything. I sort of discovered it myself as a person in 2012. I went into 2012 relatively unknown in the general public’s eyes and went through the whole year as myself and came out of it and people either loved you or they hated you.
"They fell in love with you for something, whether that was something genuine about you, or the things you said in interviews, or the way you conducted press conferences. This team’s not a vehicle for just saying the right things, because I see through that in other people when I watch sport on TV. I just think, “No, that’s so wet.”"
If we look at your life as a movie, does it demand a happy ending at the Olympics?
"Sometimes I think that. Then sometimes I hope it’s not defined on the last thing I do, because that’s dangerous as well. It’s a bit like a punch-drunk boxer who just goes for one more fight: your Ricky Hattons or Frank Brunos and I don’t want it to be like that. I remember Drogba won the Champions League with Chelsea and it was this amazing end and then he’s back there now. I mean everyone wants a happy ending but we may go to Rio and finish second. That’s the beauty of sport: you just don’t know."