November 23, 2012

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. Please vote for your Sportsman of the Year on our Facebook page.

Godspeed to Bradley Wiggins of Great Britain, recently hospitalized with broken ribs after colliding with a van while out on a training ride -- a sobering, scary finish to one of the most brilliant years ever turned in by a cyclist.

Ten days after he became the first British rider to win the Tour de France, the 32-year-old father of two took gold on his native soil in the Olympic time trial. Afterward, addressing he likelihood that he would knighted, he said, of the decree given to those so honored, "I'd just put it in a drawer."

Wiggo isn't my Sportsman of the Year just because he's a smart, self-deprecating, highly original character and gigantic talent who turned in a season for the ages. His timing had to damned good, too. In a year which saw the appalling underbelly of this sport exposed first by a book , then a USADA investigation that toppled a legend, this pallid, stick-figure Brit with peninsular sideburns emerged as the champion of cycling's new and (for God's sake let's all fervently hope) cleaner era.

Wiggins had long been a podium threat. How did he break through? Due in large part to the "biological passport" system introduced to the sport four years ago, the pro peloton is gradually -- and, let's face it, partially -- cleaning itself up. While previously doped riders came back to the pack, Wiggins passed them going in the other direction. He and his Team Sky cohorts have staked out a new (and clean) frontier in training and preparation. They've done it by identifying ways to achieve "marginal gains." These methods are not particularly, well, sexy (unless the thought of a dedicated psychologist using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging -- the better to pinpoint riders' psychological reactions to stress -- makes your heart race.) But they work. From the customized seats on the bus to the operatives who precede riders to the team hotel, in order to replace the house linens with their own hypo-allergenic sheets, Sky is out there on its own.

The same can be said of its intrepid, outspoken leader. Even during the sport's most drug-drenched days, Wiggins was in the minority in the peloton, never shy about savaging the dopers. When one of his teammates tested positive during the '07 Tour, Wiggins dropped his Cofidis kit in a trashcan, rather than be identified with that squad.

Those made suspicious by his dominance in long time trials ignore the fact that the difference between him and world's best has always been slender, in that key discipline. Many of the guys he consistently finished behind -- Alexander Vinokourov, Andrey Kasheschkin, Ruben Plaza -- have since been exposed as dirty.

"If I doped," Wiggins wrote in a column that ran during the Tour, "I would potentially stand to lose everything ... my reputation, my livelihood, my marriage, my family, my house ... my Olympic medals, my world titles ... 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 he's clean, and wish him a speedy recovery, even as I salute him for helping to heal his sport.

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