AROUND 25 journalists descended on the boutique Messeyne Hotel in Kortrijk, Belgium, on Friday afternoon, and a feeling of deja vu promptly descended upon them. We were there to see Bradley Wiggins before his final race for Team Sky.
It’s a race he’s been building up to for six months, with all the meticulous planning that brought him victory at the Tour de France, four Olympic gold medals and last year’s world time trial title. This is a completely different kind of event – it’s the famous cobbled classic, the so-called “hell of the north”, Paris-Roubaix. And it’s today, Sunday. It’s also extra significant because it’s the first in a series of farewells for Wiggins: his last appearance for Sky, the team he has led for five years; his final major road race; the end of an era. Hence the interest on Friday in hearing what he had to say.
We were met at the hotel entrance by Rob, the Team Sky press officer. From a distance, Rob looked downbeat. The journalist he was talking to, who was explaining that he had travelled from Paris, looked annoyed.
Rob was telling the journalist that Wiggins wanted to focus on the race. Speaking to the media would be an unwelcome distraction. We were here to see Wiggins but Wiggins didn’t want to see us.
“No Wiggins?” we said.
“No Wiggins,” said Rob.
Tough, we said. We had stories lined up (like this one). We had travelled vast distances and wasted huge amounts of time and money getting to godforsaken Kortrijk.
And Wiggins, who was probably listening to the increasingly rancorous discussion from his eyrie in the hotel, couldn’t even be bothered to come down the stairs to the meeting room that had been booked – where, as we spoke, TV crews were setting up – to tell us how he was feeling? Unacceptable, we said.
Poor Rob. Being press officer for Team Sky must have its perks, but looking after Wiggins is probably not one of them. Herding cats would be easier. He took his phone from his pocket, pressed a button and held it to his ear. Then he crossed to the other side of the road so that we couldn’t hear him. He stood there with his head bowed for about ten minutes, then rejoined us outside the hotel. “Brad will come down,” he said. “But only for ten minutes.”
We shuffled into the meeting room and waited. Eventually he appeared, brow creased, a black beanie hat pulled down over his ears. He made eye contact with no one. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife.
A reporter from French television asked him how it would feel on Sunday to finish his last major road race. “Nothing,” Wiggins said. He swept his long arm. “Yeah…” He paused, as though he was about to say something important, before changing his mind. “I’m trying not to think about that because it is becoming quite negative now and I’m not enjoying it. It finishes on Sunday, my career, and not before. I need to focus on the race and not keep thinking about all the nostalgic-ness of it, and all that kind of stuff. I’m just trying to focus on getting my head in the right frame of mind for the race, with no thoughts of afterwards. Because it makes the job even harder. Yeah, so…”
This was vintage Wiggins. Irascible to the last. Exasperating and utterly fascinating. In his autobiography, published last year, Chris Froome suggested that Wiggins hid behind a “gruff geezer cloak” and that he dictated the atmosphere in the team to such an extent that “we rode around him and his moods like he was a traffic island”.
On Friday, staff members at Sky apparently picked up on his black mood and kept out of his way. He had said at breakfast that he had no intention of fulfilling his media duties. When pressure was put on him (the phone call), one reported that he heard the sound of things being thrown in his eyrie (he really did have his own little tower at the top of the hotel).
“The thing is,” said another staff member, “he hates the pressure.” Then he paused and added: “But he also loves it.”
This reminded me of something said of Robert Millar by his old mentor, Jack Andre. “Robert is like a little cockerel,” said Andre. “He loves being the centre of attention, but he hates people chasing after him.”
That is Wiggins to a T. He wants to stand out and not be noticed.
Friday only reminded us all of how awkward and infuriating he is, and of how much we will miss him when he departs the scene precisely because he is so complex and contradictory, as well as being one of the most thoughtful, interesting and funny sportsmen around.
There was a brief flash of Wiggins’ wit on Friday when he mentioned the bikes that he and his team will be riding at Paris-Roubaix. These machines, with small suspension units to help absorb the cobbles, were announced with tremendous fanfare last week. “We have a new bike,” Wiggins dead-panned, “which is game-changing, apparently.”
That “apparently” was almost under his breath but delivered with perfect comic timing: the humour so dry that you could have choked on it. Moments like these are small and probably necessary acts of rebellion for the man with the hipster beard and arms covered in tattoos who rides for a team that is sponsored by a huge corporation and is renowned for its methodical, some would say robotic, approach.
It’s another contradiction, with Wiggins the rock star sportsman who approaches his job with the precision and attention to detail of an auditor. He selects a goal then identifies what it will take to achieve it, designs a plan in consultation with his coach, physiologist, nutritionist and doctor, and dedicates himself to following it, living more like a monk than a rock star.
It is the approach he has taken to Paris-Roubaix, which has been an all-consuming six-month project. So it would be natural if, by Friday, he was feeling the strain. He was ninth last year, finishing with the leading group, but has shown little this year to suggest that he will be in contention – yet it is Wiggins, with his record of selecting targets and hitting them.
Before Wiggins, no rider had won an Olympic gold medal on the track and the Tour de France. The last Tour champion to win Paris-Roubaix was Bernard Hinault in 1981. Wiggins was asked on Friday if he realised and appreciated the significance of what he was trying to do. “Oh yeah,” he replied, a little curtly. “I always think about those things. I always have, since I was a kid.”
Wiggins is not retiring quite yet – he is returning to the track for the Rio Olympics – but his last chance to make history on the road (again) is today. And doesn’t he know it.