Tom English: Wiggins soft-pedals on Lance Armstrong

Bradley Wiggins. Picture: PA
Bradley Wiggins. Picture: PA
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ONCE upon a time, Bradley Wiggins was a firebrand in his commentary on doping in cycling. Now he’s coming across as a damp squib.

Where once he railed about the cheating b******* who p***** all over his dreams and slammed the UCI for allowing them to prosper, the newer Wiggins largely keeps a lid on his ire – if he has any ire left. It’s his prerogative, but it’s disappointing.

True, cycling is cleaner now than it was before and it’s only natural that the anger he once had has lessened as a consequence. It’s cleaner, but it’s not cleansed, not fully, not anywhere close. Doping continues. Doping doctors are still in the game. Cover-ups are on-going and we wait to see how much Armstrong says about that when his interview with Oprah Winfrey is aired in the early hours of Friday and Saturday morning, UK time. Anybody who thinks cycling has left doping behind possesses the kind of gullibility that once had so many believing in the Armstrong fairytale in the first place.

So we expected more from Wiggins in the seismic business of Armstrong’s confession. What we got last week was ambiguity and evasiveness, a mixed message that spoke to Armstrong’s accusers more than the accused and made you wonder what ever happened to his younger self.

It was while listening to his fellow Olympic champion, Nicole Cooke, that the younger Wiggins sprang to mind. In a press conference to mark her retirement from the sport, Cooke’s words were powerful and appropriate. “When Lance Armstrong cries on Oprah later this week and she passes him the tissue, spare a thought for all those genuine people who walked away with no rewards,” she said. “Each one of them is worth a thousand Lances.”

She told a story of a rider that few had ever heard of who was forced from the sport simply because he refused to take performance-enhancing drugs. She told another about her experiences with a Canadian rider called Genevieve Jeanson, a rival since they were 16 years old and also a doper. “Jeanson won while I came second,” said Cooke. “While I earned $80,000 in my best years, she was making $400,000. Now she has ‘confessed’ and this is newsworthy. They are going to make a film.”

Cheats prosper. They get money for doing drugs and lying about it and they get more money when they’re ready to tell the truth. Cooke mentioned Tyler Hamilton’s autobiography and how he may get more cash for admitting that he cheated than she ever did by riding clean. “Cheats win on the way up and the way down.”

Wiggins pedalled down a different road last week. When asked about the fall of Armstrong he spoke about the people who had been “eaten up by” Armstrong’s fraud and by the wider fraud in cycling. “And they’re very bitter about the whole situation,” he said.

Bitter was an odd word to use. It had a derogatory connotation. Instead of calling out Armstrong and his team bosses and all the others who protected him and facilitated his cheating and systematically destroyed cycling in the process, he instead spoke of those people who had risked careers in the pursuit of Armstrong. The bitter ones, presumably. The irony is that Wiggins was one of these people himself once.

“You’ve seen the reaction to it [the Armstrong affair] over the last few months and there is a lot of angry people about that are taking their frustration and venting their anger in all different directions. I mean, we saw last week with Paul Kimmage [the former cycle racer and journalist who lost his job on the Sunday Times last year in part, he believes, because of his reporting on doping in cycling]... Just eaten up with it. I think to people like that it’s going to mean a hell of a lot. What they do with the rest of their lives is anybody’s guess.”

This does rather smack of looking down on the messenger while ignoring the message. Kimmage is eaten up with it? Shouldn’t everybody who cares so much about cycling be eaten up by the lies? Wiggins was eaten up by the lies himself in his previous incarnation as an outspoken critic.

In the 2006 Tour de France, Wiggins rode his heart out and finished 124th, almost three and a half hours behind the winner, Floyd Landis. Then he heard the news that Landis had tested positive. “I felt physically sick when I heard the news,” he wrote in his autobiography. “My first reaction was purely selfish and related only to me. You b****** Landis,’ I thought. ‘You have completely ruined my own small achievement of getting around the Tour de France and being a small part of cycling history. You and guys like you are p***ing on my sport and my dreams. Why do guys like you keep cheating? How many of you are out there, taking the p*** and getting away with it? Sod you all. You are a bunch of cheating b******* and I hope one day they catch the lot of you and ban you all for life. You can keep doing it your way and I will keep doing it mine. You won’t ever change me, you sods. B******s to all of you. At least I can look at myself in the mirror.”

Now Wiggins draws a line between himself and those people for whom the Armstrong admission of guilt and the on-going pursuit of the truth behind the giant deception that goes way beyond Armstrong is important. He sounds like he almost pities these people when they finally do get closure. “What they do with the rest of their lives is anybody’s guess.” How condescending is that? ‘These poor idiots who have dedicated years in search of answers. God help them when they have to move on.’ It’s not the Wiggins of old, that is for sure.

This is the kind of thing Wiggins used to say. “I think they [Tour de France organisers] have to take a strong look at who they invite to the race in the next few years; if there is one per cent suspicion or doubt that a team is involved in doping, or working with certain doctors who are under suspicion of doping, then they shouldn’t be invited to the Tour de France, it’s as simple as that. They shouldn’t even be given a racing licence until they can prove that they are not involved in wrongdoing.”

Now he is unhappy at aspersions being cast at his own Team Sky despite their history of employing people whose link to performance-enhancing drugs was, in some cases, 99% north of “one per cent”. They’re gone now but they were there alongside Wiggins for long enough and nothing was said. Gert Leinders, Sean Yates, Bobby Jullich, Steven de Jongh, Fabio Bartolucci – all members of the management team until the very recent past, all connected with doping.

If people are, as Wiggins puts it, “venting their anger in all different directions” then it’s understandable. The Wiggins of 2006 would have been venting at the Team Sky of 2012, of that there is no doubt. If people like Kimmage didn’t vent in the first place, then nothing would have happened. We’d still be living this lie of Armstrong as hero. The Tour would still be whizzing along as a grotesque pharmacy on wheels.

As the spiritual leader of the peloton and the most important bike rider in the world, Wiggins should be saluting the campaigners that have brought Armstrong and many others to account. He should be talking, as Cooke did, about the lies and the cheating and the hypocrisy and the tragedy of it all, and how the UCI must now be investigated before closure is found.

Wiggins was asked, by GQ magazine, if he felt that Armstrong had let him down (last summer Wiggins named Armstrong as one of his top-10 Tour de France heroes) and Wiggins replied: “No, I don’t. Because so many cyclists were doing it back then. You look at the guys that were finishing second or third or fourth, and they’ve all been done [for drugs]. Lance Armstrong was just the best at drug taking. But rather than feel let down by him, I think that whole generation let us down.”

It’s a piece of obfuscation that Armstrong would be proud of. ‘A load of them were at it so why bother singling out one guy.’ Because the one guy was the greatest cheat of them all, that’s why. Because he was a one-time hero of yours, Bradley. Because he more than any other rider corrupted the sport. Because he more than any other rider was protected, say the United States Anti-Doping Agency, by the governing body, and that governing body has not changed from when Wiggins decried the cheating culture in cycling.

“The 1990s are pretty much a write-off now,” said Wiggins the other day. He said it in a kind of sombre way, as if that is a cause for regret. Cheats have had their victories stripped from them, the biggest cheat of all now in disgrace. How could that be anything other than a great thing?

The younger Wiggins would understand.