July 21 2012, final weekend of the Tour, St Pancras station, London. I sat waiting for the Eurostar reading a newspaper with a picture of a young Bradley Wiggins on a first bicycle. Inside were pages and pages on his life story, reflections from his nearest and dearest. The Sun had cut-out sideburns on the front cover.
It felt like the world stopped spinning that Sunday. A year on, I was struck by the comparatively muted response to Chris Froome’s Tour de France victory. Fans decamped to Paris and broadsheets had a few yellow-jersey front pages, but it didn’t approach the wig-out Wiggins euphoria.
Why does Froome’s win not compare? Firstly, he had the misfortune to win when Britain sits briefly and blissfully in the sporting ascendancy. His triumph was the summer fait accompli sandwiched in between more capricious mainstream successes of the first Ashes Test, the Lions tour and Murray at Wimbledon.
Is it due to a perceived “plastic Britishness” because of Froome’s African upbringing? Baloney. We don’t cheer less for Samoan-born Manu Tuilagi when he scores a try for England, or for Mo Farah, who lived in Somalia till he was eight.
It’s funny because, in character, Froome is more quintessentially British than Bradley Wiggins. He’s Le Real Gentleman: faultlessly polite, quietly determined, boarding school-educated with a clipped accent and dry sense of humour.
Mirror-gazing honesty time: we’re a nation of Froomes. We wait politely in long queues. We give up our seats to pensioners on buses. And it’s not as fun for fans seeing a reflection of the nice-but-bland national stereotype winning. Whereas mod Wiggins is more chaotically, engagingly human. He swears occasionally, says a few things he shouldn’t and doesn’t play by the rules the whole time. Fans and journalists like persuasive personalities, shows of honesty and a fallible hero.
There’s the gripping feeling that it’s always a rollercoaster with Wiggins. He can match golden seasons with doldrum months. Even winning the 2012 Tour, he gave hints of fragility, snapping at journalists and seeming to hold back Froome. It’s not as fun when the overwhelming pre-race favourite doesn’t show any great weakness.
But don’t mistake Froome for being boring or uncharismatic. As a Dutch journalist told me on the Tour’s second rest day – and as our issue 39 interview with the Tour winner testifies – Froome on and off the race are two very different people. He has to peddle the sensible line at the Tour because there’s the – not unreasonable – perception that a few of us hacks will spin anything other than anodyne quotes into the day’s big story.
The future belongs to Froome. Yes, several more Tour wins potentially await but he could be the responsible, transparent talisman modern cycling craves. Currently, long-term modern cycling followers are wronged lovers sitting at home in pyjamas with their spoons in ice cream tubs. Every time we were lied to, cheated on and told tall tales, we came back for more.
Enough, we’re sick of it. Automatic trust has been waived by the sport’s history. Look what a fine mess blind trust got us into. So Froome had to patiently field question after question about his and Sky’s performance. And journalists have to keep asking: every performance changes the parameters.
Over the course of the race, especially into the last week, he seemed to change from someone whose winning experience threatened to be soured by these repeat demands to recognising his important role.
“This is one yellow jersey that will stand the test of time,” were his final words in Paris. But he’s got to keep acting and talking about doping because he means it, not just because it sounds good or because the team spokesperson whispers it in his ear.
What also excites about Froome and the future is his voracity. He very nearly won the King of the Mountains too; the last man to do that was some Belgian called Eddy. The first thing he targeted post-Tour was not a lengthy pub session but the world championships in Florence. He doesn’t share readily, even when the wise thing to do in cycling is occasionally let someone else win and store it as a favour for the future.
When the season finishes, the big challenge for Froome is keeping his head. He’ll be transported to the very bottom of the climb again to begin the long Tour training trudge again, only with the demands on his time of the reigning champion.
I can only imagine the effect the award cermonies and late nights have. They can toy with training plans and the mind. When people keep telling you how great you are, your sense of self-importance gets skewed.
A repeat Tour win, that’s the real difficult second album. Recent history is littered with one-time champs who failed to do it again.
I’d say Wiggins will be another, but his history suggests it’s stupid to write him off. He’s due a big rise on the rollercoaster in 2014.
The Tour de France champion talks harpooning octopuses, bluffing rivals and Bradley Wiggins.