PARIS -- And so, on the day of its most beloved sporting event, all of France was subjected to a version of God Save the Queen, belted out on the Champs-Elysees with admirable verve by British soprano Lesley Garrett.
Something tells me Bradley Wiggins appreciated the humor in that moment. There are now 99 Tours de France in the books. Wiggins had just become the first Englishman to win one of them. He'd also revealed himself to be a superb teammate and general mensch by moving to the point of the peloton in the final moments of Sunday's Stage 20, providing a lead-out for Team Sky's Mark Cavendish, whose ridiculously easy victory on the Champs Elysees confirmed him as the best sprinter in the world and stamped Sky's dominance on an extraordinarily British version of this race.
Wiggins grew up with cycling posters on the walls of his central London bedroom. He would allow himself to fantasize about winning this race, but was forever yanking himself back to reality. "You had to be from somewhere exotic to win the Tour," he recalls thinking, "like Italy or Spain."
Surely, considering his groundbreaking accomplishment, the 32-year-old father of two would succumb to emotion during his brief remarks from the top of the podium following Garrett's performance. Surely he would tear up, and there would be a catch in his throat.
Or not. After bowing in the direction of the thousands of British fans who'd crossed the Channel to witness this moment (some of whom had glued shag-carpet-like peninsulas to their cheeks, in homage to his five-star sideburns), he began his speech thusly: "Excuse me ... we're just going to draw the raffle numbers now." While his nonplused French hosts seemed unsure of how to react, roars of laughter emanated from the Brits.
The rest of his humble, charming speech: "I just want to say thank you to everyone for the support all the way around. It has been a magical couple of weeks for the team and British Cycling. Sometimes dreams come true and to my mother over there, her son has now won the Tour de France. Have a safe journey home and don't get too drunk tonight."
We have this odd litmus test in America: People are said to be inclined to vote for the presidential candidate they'd most like to have a beer with. In addition to being sharp, funny, grounded and profane, Wiggins is definitely one of the cyclists you'd most want to have a beer with. It was a problem, earlier in his career, that he'd have been no less eager to tip a pint with
He outgrew his party animal persona years ago. "At 22, I was living for the weekend," he says. "At 32, I'm living for my family."
He came by that great thirst honestly. His father, Garry, was a huge talent on the bike whose love for winning races was matched only by his predilection for night life. Garry left his wife and their two children when Bradley was three, eventually returning to his native country. "He was drinking for Australia and bloody hell," Wiggins writes, "and could he put the grog away."
After disappearing for fourteen years, a dissipated, diminished Garry Wiggins made overtures to get back into his son's life when Bradley was 17. By then, the younger Wiggins had begun to show considerable promise as a rider, himself. While they stayed in touch, and met sporadically, Wiggins didn't care for the man his father had become, and keeping him at arm's length until Garry died in early 2008.
While Wiggins denied, during this Tour, that he draws motivation from anger, a source close to British cycling tells me that a big part of his success comes from the ability of his coaches and handlers to tap into his reservoir of submerged anger.
He certainly startled onlookers with his expletive-intensive outburst after Stage 8. Asked to respond to Twitterverse speculation that Sky's success must be fueled by doping, he lashed out at that lot of "f------ wankers," then continued to rant in that vein until closing his remarks with an especially shocking obscenity, then walking out of the room.
To his credit, he was consistently gracious for the rest of the race, although he did lament the tone and direction of several questions last Thursday. Moments after holding off his biggest threats in the final mountain stage, he was asked if his imminent victory wouldn't be devalued by the absence of other riders (Andy Schleck is injured; Alberto Contador serving out a suspension for doping). Another two riders had left the Tour under the shadow of doping: Would that cheapen his victory?
The question didn't anger Wiggins so much as seemed to make him sad. "You do something like that" -- hold off your most dangerous rival through half a dozen mountain stages -- "and a fellow asks a question and straight away it's in a negative sense."
"You can only beat who turns up on the day," he went on. ""I don't think all the people who came out from the UK to stand on these climbs in the past two weeks give a monkey's [backside] about that. For me, no one's actually praised me yet."
Actually, he has come in for some high praise -- none more generous than from British cycling legend Sir Chris Hoy, who characterized his countryman's imminent Tour victory as "the greatest achievement by any British sportsperson, ever."
When news broke that Contador had tested positive for Clenbuterol during the 2010 Tour, I talked to a scientist who told me, that, yes, the Clenbuterol could've come from eating tainted beef. But the surest indicator that the Spaniard doped, he went on, was that "he won the Tour de France."
You couldn't do one without the other, in other words.
That was true for a long stretch, but I no longer believe it's the case. The biological passport system introduced by the sport's governing body in 2008 has made it much harder to cheat. Not so impossible that some riders aren't tempted to try. But the risks of getting caught are much higher. I believe Wiggins is a clean rider who was the beneficiary of an all-star team "that didn't ride," as he's fond of putting it, "like a team of stars." Mick Rogers, a former Top 10 Tour finisher; Chris Froome, who looked at times to have a bit more in the tank than his boss; Cavendish, only the greatest sprinter in several decades -- all sublimated their personal ambitions for the greater goal. It also helped Wiggins that this year's
It bears noting, also, that Wiggins was never afraid to direct his anger at the cheaters in his sport. When the 2006 Tour was rocked by revelations of an elaborate doping ring -- the Spanish investigation was known as Opercion Puerto -- he became a go-to anti-doper quote for cycling journos. When his own Cofidis teammate, Christian Moreni, tested positive during the '07 Tour, Wiggins dropped his Cofidis kit in a trash can in the Pau airport, rather than risk being identified with that squad.
In a passionate, well-reasoned column in the British newspaper
"If I doped," he went on, "I would potentially stand to lose everything ... my reputation, my livelihood, my marriage, my family, my house ... my Olympic medals, my world titles, the CBE [Commander of the British Empire award] I was given. I would have to take my children to the school gates in a small Lancashire village with everyone looking at me, knowing I had cheated."
I believe him.
I also believe that he's got to be the favorite for the Olympic time trial, coming up on August 1. The yellow jersey, followed by a gold medal, would have been unthinkable for a British rider until very recently. But sometimes dreams come true.