Frank Malley: Inspirational Brailsford helped ‘le Gentleman’ become a cycling legend
AFTER 2,200 miles and total climbs equivalent to scaling Everest three times, Bradley Wiggins rode through the gates of history in Paris when he finally became the first Briton to win the Tour de France.
That sentence is so easy to write.
Yet it is much more difficult to convey just how mind-blowingly magnificent that achievement is in the world of sport.
Edward VII was on the throne and Arthur Balfour was Prime Minister when the first Tour de France was run in 1903. Not a single Briton had come near the ultimate accolade in the intervening years.
In fact, until Wiggins donned the yellow jersey, arguably the single most significant moment concerning a Briton on the Tour was the infamous death of Tommy Simpson in 1967 from a combination of exhaustion and drugs while climbing Mont Ventoux.
No more. Wiggins has etched his name in the pantheon of cycling greats. Not quite up there with multiple Tour de France winners such as Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Lance Armstrong, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain and Greg LeMond. Not yet, but up there in a place of glorious achievement and heroic sacrifice.
All those days Wiggins has spent away from his wife Cath and two children, Ben and Isabella.
All the winter mornings spent ploughing over the Trough of Bowland in training in deepest Lancashire in rain and hail.
All the carrots cut in his first job as a kitchen assistant at a central London hotel, when the idea of making a living from cycling seemed nothing more than a pipe dream.
All rendered worthwhile in a magical three weeks in which Wiggins and Team Sky have turned the world of sport upside down.
Victory in quite probably the most gruelling test of athletic prowess in the whole of sport is meant to go to traditional cycling nations, honed for decades in the nuances of mountain climbs, sprint finishes and punishing time trials.
That is why no British rider had ever before claimed the yellow jersey of the Tour winner in Paris.
The spectacular breakthrough, there is no doubt, is rooted in the synergy of Team Sky and the inspirational leadership of team principal Dave Brailsford. This is the man who has transformed British cycling from also-rans into world-beaters. The man whose vision and astute planning brought 14 medals for Britain’s Olympic cyclists in Beijing, eight of them gold. The man who promises to fill the Velodrome at London 2012 with another golden salvo of cycling success.
It was Brailsford who assembled the components for Wiggins’ triumph. Brailsford who massaged the psyches of a team with huge talents and big egos, creating the all-for-one togetherness which saw Mark Cavendish forego stage wins and Chris Froome put his individual ambitions on hold to propel Wiggins and the team to glory.
If there was a yellow jersey for man-management then Brailsford would be over the horizon with a peloton of coaches trailing in his wake.
But do you know what was the most wonderful thing of all about Wiggins’ victory? It was the manner in which it was executed.
It was the way Wiggins ate up the miles in the time trials, hung in there with Froome with an iron will in the Pyrenees and earned the soubriquet ‘le Gentleman’ from the French for leading the peloton, most notably demanding they waited for Australian Cadel Evans on stage 14 after the 2011 champion had suffered serial punctures when saboteurs threw tacks onto the road.
A French sports newspaper was led to describe Wiggins as carrying himself like ‘a British Army colonel serving in India’.
Upright. Demanding. Scrupulously fair. There might be better ways to win a great sporting prize but I cannot think of one.
Suffice to say that whatever happens at London 2012, save for a British sprinter beating Usain Bolt to gold in the 100m final, Wiggins is the overwhelming favourite to land the Sports Personality of the Year.
And what a year! Andy Murray becoming the first Briton to contest a Wimbledon men’s singles final for 74 years. The Olympics looming, yesterday’s dramatic Open Championship and the Ryder Cup to come.
When it is all done, however, it is Wiggins who will be remembered forever and Brailsford who must not be forgotten.
Knighthoods are all too glibly proffered for sporting success. This is different. If there is any justice, both will be summoned to the Palace. Arise Sir Bradley and Sir David.
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