Friday 15 December 2017

Tour de France: Wiggins spurred on by the father who wasn't there

Tour De France Bradley Wiggins cycles on the road near his home in Eccleston yesterday
Tour De France Bradley Wiggins cycles on the road near his home in Eccleston yesterday

Jim White

Of all the stories told of Bradley Wiggins, the freshly minted hero of British sport, after his victory in the Champs-Elysees on Sunday, one stood out for its poignancy.

It concerned his father Gary, an Australian who made a living as a cyclist on the European tour.

An itinerant, a boozer, a man not inclined to domestic routine, Gary had already abandoned one young family in Australia when he walked out on his second wife Linda and his son Bradley, then aged two. He made no attempt to maintain contact, and was totally absent as the young lad grew up, lovingly encouraged by his enthusiast mother, into a cycling obsessive.

They were briefly reconciled when the future king of the French roads was a reed-thin teenager, but Gary was never that good at keeping in contact.

He did get back in touch after his 20-year-old son won a bronze medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. He persuaded the young man to come to the cycling club where he hung out; he wanted Brad to enter a race there. The aim was to show off, to prove to the other members that the Wiggins genes were of a wholly superior stamp.

Unfortunately, the plan didn't quite work out. The junior Wiggins, tired by his Olympic effort and slightly embarrassed by the circumstances, managed to come only second in his dad's impromptu championship.

Failure

Far from thanking him for his effort and telling him how proud he was of his Olympic debut, Gary hit the roof, accusing his son of being a failure, of letting him down, bitterly telling him that -- in any case -- he was a better cyclist than him. They never spoke again.

And when Gary died in mysterious circumstances in a New South Wales street at the age of 55 in 2008, his son did not travel to the funeral.

There are many things that make Bradley Wiggins stand out as a sporting champion. There's a low-key modesty -- "I feel very odd. I am not used to this. I am not a celebrity," he said yesterday.

There are those pipe-cleaner thin pistons of legs that seem to extend up to his rib cage. There is his lung capacity, apparently capable of holding as much oxygen as the Albert Hall.

Not to mention his sideburns, the luxuriant facial tufts that, as he spun through the sunflowers and mountains of France, gave him the appearance of a saddle-bound Mr Pickwick. But what makes him highly unusual among elite sports people is this: his relationship with his father.

Check the biographies of most winners and the one thing they have in common is a supportive old man, someone who showered them with love and attention their entire life.

Ted Beckham has seen every game his son David has ever played. Wherever the Williams sisters bulldoze an opponent, you can be sure that their father Richard is in the stands, adding several hundred more to his collection of long lens snapshots of his girls in action.

As for Tom Daly, he will be all the more motivated when he dives into the Olympic pool next week, aiming for gold in memory of his late dad Robert. His every dive will be a testimony to the mentor who subsumed his whole life into the process of delivering his son to the pinnacle of his sport.

Daly is not alone in being thus determined. Over the next fortnight, there will be countless Olympic gold medallists who dedicate their victory to their parents. They will recall their father driving them to the swimming pool for dawn practice.

They will remember the many times he comforted them in defeat and told them that, if they worked hard and kept going, they would win in the end.

In press conferences across the Olympic park, winners will explain how they could never have got where they are now without their folks. Many will insist that the medal belongs to them, the return for all that investment.

And there is truth in that. The making of any champion begins in the home. What a supportive dad gives his child is the emotional structure in which they can bloom. The corollary for the parent is a sports person who works even harder on their game in order to thank them for their input.

But the drive that Wiggins got from Gary was somewhat different. Wiggins does what he does because he doesn't want to end up like his father. During that brief reconciliation in 2000, the up-and-coming racer was shocked by what he saw of his old man.

The booze-fuelled bitterness, the anger, the endless blaming of anyone but himself, all this shook him to the core. Knowing he had inherited the old man's DNA, Wiggins recognised he had within him a similar propensity for drink, for lament, for railing against an unjust world.

He was determined that he would not turn into his dad, the bloke at the bar telling anyone who would listen that he could have been a contender. He set out to rid himself of the possibility of regret. Refusing to squander opportunity, he would do whatever it took to make the most of every last drop of God-given talent.

And on Sunday, with three Olympic golds already in his sideboard, the man the French christened 'Le Gentleman' achieved his reward. Gary Wiggins may have been right: perhaps he was a more gifted cyclist than his son. The record books, however, suggest otherwise.

Unlike his astonishingly driven and determined offspring, Wiggins Snr did not have the mental steel to make the most of his ability. Nevertheless, he may well have played a tangential, posthumous part in Sunday's triumph.

Inadvertently, unintentionally, in a manner that makes you reach for the Kleenex just thinking about it, he gave his son the final spur needed to achieve historic success. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent Sport Star Awards

Pick our magic sports moment of the year and win a trip for two to London. To view the shortlist and cast your vote click here.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport