Days before the London 2012 Olympics began, a new British poster boy leapt to the world's attention. Bradley Wiggins, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, achieved something that no British cyclist has accomplished in more than 100 years. He won world cycling's crown jewel, the Tour de France — and grudging kudos and respect from the French media (some would say this is an even more notable achievement than winning the race itself).
The Tour de France is one of the most grueling athletic events in the world: three weeks of racing across almost 3,500 kilometers of beautiful countryside, quaint villages and wine country — and, of course, white-knuckle mountain routes through the Alps and the Pyrénées. Not to mention combating the threat of the odd media car accidentally plowing you off the road or perhaps two or three simple-minded spectators running alongside you trying to thrust a baguette into your front wheel. As some of the crashes this year attest, causing more riders to drop out since I don't know when, road cycling can be a brutal and savage experience.
The sport has traditionally been dominated by continental Europe — with the occasional purple patch for the Americans — and Britain has hardly had a look in. Last Sunday, this all changed as Wiggins secured the Yellow Jersey, the infamous Maillot Jaune. It completed a thoroughly dominating performance from Wiggins and his Team Sky, who pounded the opposition into submission. Defending champ Cadel Evans could only look on in terror as Team Sky's collaborative efforts swatted away faltering resistance.
Perhaps it would be a stretch to say this win put British cycling on the map. But it is safe to say it cemented its position — and brilliant timing, too, with the Olympics round the corner.
Cycling is hardly a flavor-of-the-month sport in Britain. In fact, following the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games (rather a shambles for Team GB in general), government funding increased for many so called "niche" sports, and cycling was a major beneficiary of this cash injection. In Sydney in 2000, Britain won five medals in cycling events, followed by four more in Athens in 2004 (including a gold for Wiggins).
But it was in Beijing that the stars aligned for the British cycling contingent, which won 13 medals, including eight golds (two won by Wiggins). Britain finished fourth in the medal tables, a hugely successful campaign. Of the team's six multiple-medal-winning athletes, three were cyclists. Along with rowing, British cycling was shouting "notice me" from the rooftops, nipping at the ankles of the traditional track and field bias of the British Olympic press.
All eyes were on the opening ceremony on Friday (when Wiggins rang the opening bell). On Saturday, attention turned back to the Tour de France heroes — Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and Chris Froome — as they attempt to win gold for Britain in the 250 km road race. The race starts and finishes at The Mall, taking in scenic southwest London attractions such as Richmond Park (let's hope that Fenton is on his leash) Bushy Park and Hampton Court Palace.
This race isn't tailor-made for Wiggins, as pure finishing speed is not his forte and sprinters will dominate this race. Thus Wiggins, ever the team player, will likely be playing a key role to set up and unleash Cavendish, the "Manx Missile," in the last kilometer heading towards thousands of Union Jack flags lining the Mall the way they did for Will and Kate's big day. It will be quite the spectacle.
Wiggins will be in line for another gold-medal chance in the individual road time trial on August 1, which should be no problem for the classy Tour de France champ, the man they call, simply, "Wiggo": Britain's new hero.
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by Matt Goff
Photo: Some of Britain's best hopes for Olympic medals rest on Bradley Wiggins of Great Britain and his SKY Procycling teammates, shown during the 2012 Tour de France. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)