I’ve just finished reading Bradley Wiggins’ autobiography, “My Time”, featuring his amazing 2012, when he won the Tour de France and the Olympic time trial gold. And three other top road races: Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie in Switzerland and the Dauphine-Libere in France. An extraordinary series of achievements, like nothing any British road cyclist has ever achieved before.
It’s an enjoyable read – it’s mostly about success, after all. Not a work of art, but for anyone who enjoys cycling, and maybe others too, it’s an inspiring story. If you’ve been reading my blogs, you’ll know how much I’ve enjoyed Bradley’s feats over the past year, so I’ll admit to reading the book with a very positive mindset, but hey what’s wrong with that?
Why is it inspiring? Well, partly it’s just sharing the triumphs, enjoying the personal insights; but it’s also the appreciation of what went into those triumphs. For me there are three things that Bradley highlights which are lessons for all of us if we want success, especially when we are part of a team.
The book is at its most fascinating as Bradley describes his training regime for 2012. The preparation for the 2012 Tour started almost as soon soon as the 2011 Tour ended. Especially for Wiggo, as he was forced out of the 2011 after he was caught in one of the big crashes and broke his collarbone. He was back for the Spanish tour, La Vuelta, where the Sky team did pretty well, but didn’t win it. Lessons were learnt from that.
One of the most striking things was the training he did at home over the winter of 2011-12. In his shed at the bottom of the garden, on what was probably the ultimate exercise bike, hooked up to the computers at HQ at the Manchester velodrome. Heaters turning the temperature up to 35 degrees celsius. Instructions pumped down the line about the intensity, the power, everything. The impression is that this was a new approach to cycling, where in the past a lot of the hard training had been done in races themselves, in the early part of the season.
Then the training camps in the mountains of Tenerife and Mallorca. Really testing the athletes – the team, not just Bradley – working on the power, the ability to up the tempo at crucial moments. I love all the jargon: torque, cadence, wattage, TSS (training stress scores). I’ve been imagining it as I cycle up a gentle hill in Ealing – not quite the Alps – what’s my torque? Have a got the right cadence here? Ah, great, it just brings home what a feat of endurance any competitive cycling is, never mind the pinnacle of the sport.
Maybe there was a time when a swashbuckling individual would win the Tour through sheer brilliance. Eddie Merckx perhaps. But no longer. It’s all about putting the best cyclists in a place where they can win, be it the sprints or the overall classification. Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France because Sky knew he had the capability to do what was necessary. The role of all the other team members was to make sure he was in the position to do it. The book describes how that happened, but also how, from time to time, it almost went awry. The classic moment, which was clear to see on the TV coverage at the time, was when Chris Froome launched an attack on the breakaway group in one one of the Alpine stages. He said it was to take time out of the Italian, Nibali, who was his rival for second place. But it looked to all of us like a grab for first place, and within the Sky confines it was a clear breach of instructions. He was reined back by the team management, but it led to questions – briefly – about who was really the best. Inexcusable in a team sport where roles are so clearly defined. It’s the only place in the book where Bradley has a go at a team mate. Generally he is full of praise, especially for Mark Cavendish, who put aside green jersey aspirations to help the team.
The message – you only win things when you are genuinely a team. Applies in any workplace as much as top level sport.
To achieve something like victory in the Tour de France, the preparation, the focus, is phenomenal. Inevitably, that means that some of those nearest and dearest to you are neglected. Bradley clearly feels this very strongly. It takes great understanding and support from your family. Younger children especially won’t understand why you aren’t there for key moments in their life. It’s part of the pact for success – you can’t have everything. We all have to make choices. People at the very top of their game have to be selfish. They may regret it. They are human. Bradley addresses this with great honesty.
Those three themes tell us what it takes to win the Tour de France. There are some lovely, moving moments in the book, when it is coming together. Again, there are three which really hit home for me, brought a gulp or shiver to the spine. Or a hint of a tear, until I remembered I was on the Piccadilly Line, heading home!
The first was when Bradley won his first yellow jersey, after the first major climb, on Stage 7, to La Planche des Belles Filles in the Vosges, near Nancy. He describes movingly how much that meant to him, to join the pantheon of yellow jersey wearers in the world’s greatest race. He knew his history, knew whom he was joining. It was like nothing else would matter – at least he had that now. No-one could take it away from him.
The second was in the second time trial, a race to Chartres. The last day before the run into Paris. Already two minutes ahead of the field, so no question of having to take time out of anyone, like Cadel Evans. But still there to be won. Feeling at the peak of his form, all the training, all the preparation, coming to fruition. Knowing that if he just did what he knew he could do, he would be the Tour de France winner. He did that and more. He took first place in the time trial, taking more time out of all his rivals. As he rode the race, he was in his own victorious bubble, guided along by Sean Yates, his tour director, on the radio. Everything went to plan. The culmination of all that preparation, teamwork, sacrifice. Cloud Nine.
The third was just the way he sought out his family – wife Cath and children, Isabella and Ben, after Cav’s victory on the Champs Elysees. (Where Bradley played a major part in riding out for Cav – no simple victory procession – this was a team, a return of favours.) He did the same when he won the Olympic time trial. Both times he didn’t seem to know where they were. In the midst of victory, finding them was the most important thing. Just a reminder, and a moving one: he’s just an ordinary man, with ordinary feelings. But with an extraordinary talent.
Wonderful, feelgood stuff. But there are dark moments. Like in 2010, when things went wrong on the bike after a fourth place in the Tour de France in 2009, and he suffered the loss of his grandfather, George, who had been very much a father figure in his life. Or, of course, the drugs insinuations. How could he and Sky get so good so quickly? This in a sport that has been riven by cases of doping and just recently ripped apart again by Lance Armstrong’s confessions. To any doubters I’d just say read the book. Read the passionate denunciation of drugs, his explanation of why he could never contemplate taking them. And the the whole description of how the Sky team brought a new level of preparation and planning to road racing. It may be less glamorous than the idea of individuals relying on pure talent, but it is the professional way. Advancement through small margins. Attention to every detail. Science as well as inspiration. That’s how Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France and the Olympic Gold.
But there is inspiration too. Proof that if you try hard enough, care enough, are willing to put in the hard yards, you can achieve your objectives. Your dreams.
A lesson for us all.
(Photos from Google Images)