Peel back all those layers of fashionable mod clothing that Bradley Wiggins prefers when he’s not on the bike and you’ll find the beating heart of a sentimentalist.
It’s why he returned to his first love, track cycling, after conquering the Tour de France. It’s why he returned to the Olympics for one last shot at glory. It’s why he intends to wrap up his long, decorated cycling career later this year at Six Days of Ghent, the first bike race that his father took him to as a child – long before Wiggins would become the most decorated Olympian in British history.
“I have to go back to my next kind of historical base,” he said on Friday after leading the British pursuit team to the gold medal in Rio, the eighth Olympic medal of his career.
“My first memory as a child was to be there with my dad when he was racing it,” Wiggins added, almost wistfully. “It’ll be a nice end to my career, back where I was born, back where it started.”
The road in between was one for the history books. Wiggins first made a name for himself at the 2000 Sydney Games, a 20-year-old upstart helping Britain win team pursuit bronze. But it wasn’t until the Athens Games four years later, when he won gold, silver and bronze in three different events, that he made the world take notice. He was the first British athlete in 40 years to win three medals at a single Olympics.
Wiggins had more success at the 2008 Beijing Games, winning gold in the team and individual pursuits, before turning his full attention to the more lucrative world of road racing. Many thought he was crazy when he expressed his desire to become the first British winner of the Tour de France. Wiggins is gangly and powerful, attributes that suit him perfectly in the controlled environment of a velodrome but aren’t so good for climbing in the Alps. Yet over the span of several years, he became leaner, stronger and built up his endurance, becoming the centrepiece of Team Sky.
He accomplished his goal in the unforgettable summer of 2012.
A few weeks later, he completed a rare double by winning the time trial at the London Olympics, roared on by a home crowd still relishing his yellow jersey in Paris.
Wiggins came to a crossroads at that point in his career. He began a slow retirement from the pressures of road racing, only to decide that he wanted to take one last stab at an Olympic medal in the team pursuit – the event that started it all.
Inside the hot velodrome at the Rio Olympics, Wiggins managed to accomplish yet another goal. “Bradley is a freak of nature,” said British teammate Owain Doull. “It’s just a testament to how talented an athlete he is that he can just pick a goal and he can go and get it.”
Wiggins was tied with Chris Hoy with seven medals apiece before winning gold on Friday. It was his fifth gold to go with a silver and two bronze medals.
Hoy still has more golds than Wiggins – with six – but Wiggins has more medals.
“I think [Wiggins is] the greatest British cyclist of all time,” said Hoy. “But it’s also about his persona, his leadership status. When he came back to the team last year, everyone felt like they were and inch taller.”
Wiggins plans to ride the Tour of Britain next month, then tackle a few six-day races – track events where teams of two riders see how far they can ride over six days of competition.
It will all end at the Six Days of Ghent, the one that holds so much meaning to him.