Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins has enjoyed his best ever year, with overall wins in Paris-Nice and the Tour de Romandie, as well as a commanding victory in the recent Criterium du Dauphiné. The Briton’s dominant performance in the race’s long time trial turned heads, despite the pursuit palmares that convinced Jonathan Vaughter’s to sign him to his Garmin-Slipstream squad for the 2009 season. The real surprise, however, is his ascendance as a premier stage racer, beginning with a fourth place finish in the 2009 Tour de France. A dramatic weight loss and strong team support, combined with a parcours well-suited to his powerful, diesel style, saw Wiggins reveal himself as a contender. The Briton was the revelation of a race punctuated by skirmishes between a freshly un-retired Lance Armstrong and a pre-doping conviction Alberto Contador.
But Bradley Wiggins seems to have changed in ways that go beyond his abilities on the bike, and one needn’t look too deeply to find unsettling symmetry in the careers of the Briton and his friend from Texas.
1. In With the In Crowd
During the 2009 Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins the pursuit champion became Bradley Wiggins the Tour de France contender. Riding for Jonathan Vaughter’s Garmin-Slipstream team, Wiggins lost a tremendous amount of weight and rode a gutsy race on a course suited to a rider of his qualities. As he was thrust into the limelight as the revelation of the Tour, the formerly outspoken anti-doper suddenly became quite friendly with Lance Armstrong, who was in the midst of his “Comeback 2.0.” Wiggins became a different man during those three weeks in France, and the fame, wealth, and proximity to the Armstrong myth that came after the race ended has only made this change more pronounced. Since that time, Wiggins has rarely said a word against doping and those who do it, and has consistently failed to address the issue when it has been posed to him.
In 2009, Wiggins became a millionaire, a national hero, and a far worse anti-doping advocate than he had previously been.
2. A Curious Method
When Lance Armstrong was asked to justify how he suddenly went from barely finishing grand tours to winning them, he cited dramatic weight loss and superior new training methods. Bradley Wiggins has now made precisely these same claims. While there an obvious correlation between decreased mass and increased climbing speeds on the bicycle, it is concerning to hear Wiggins crediting his recent success to both untraditional training methods and a training camp in Tenerife. The former claim is patently absurd, as it assumes that Wiggins is somehow privy to training information that has somehow eluded all other trainers, coaches, sports scientists, and cyclists. However, it is the time that Wiggins has spent at a “remote hotel in Tenerife” that is most concerning.
Dr. Michele Ferrari, the infamous Italian physician once convicted of malpractice for doping professional cyclists, is “known to work with riders in Tenerife,” according to an article by Stephen Farrand. This information is, of course, hardly news to anyone who has followed the Armstrong case closely throughout the years.
3. Triumph of the Market, Failure of the Press
Throughout Lance Armstrong’s reign as Tour de France “champion,” the media consistently failed to critically examine the issue of doping allegations against him. The mainstream press hailed Armstrong as an American hero, while the cycling press was too caught up in the sudden attention, and the money that came along with it. Teams wanted sponsors, writers wanted jobs, editors and publishers wanted to sell newspapers, and precious few minded much if the truth had to be sacrificed for it. The focus shifted to the growth of the sport, and the opening up of new markets was praised in heavily coded language about bringing cycling to the people.
Now Bradley Wiggins carries the weight of his own nation on his shoulders, and his status as a Tour de France contender has made him a national ambassador for his sport. Much like Armstrong and those who surrounded him, Wiggins and Sky have placed great emphasis on growing the sport of cycling in their nation. In reality, growing the sport means growing the market, and while cycling is worth promoting as a potential solution to problems such as obesity, it is ultimately about increasing sales for sponsors. The status of national icon also has the curious effect of discouraging any serious scrutiny of just how the hero accomplishes such amazing feats.
The press should be asking Wiggins serious questions about his time in Tenerife, about his former association with people like Brian Holm, who helped a doped Bjarne Riis to Tour de France victory. The press should be asking Wiggins why he supports Lance Armstrong, who is clearly no ambassador for clean sport. They should ask him why he no longer rails against dopers, but instead calls for caution in accusing people implicated by mountains of circumstantial evidence. Specifically, journalists should be asking Wiggins if he has taken performance enhancing drugs, and if he declines to answer then it should be noted that he declined to comment. To not address the issue at all, however, is absolutely insulting to the profession.
Bradley Wiggins is performing extraordinary feats on the bicycle, and they deserve extraordinary scrutiny. It is not a journalist’s place to decide which questions are appropriate to ask, rather it is their job to ask questions about the issues that deserve to be addressed.