Bradley Wiggins – The most recent winner of the Tour de France is an icon twice over: both as a mod culture figure, and as the champion of clean cycling at a time of great upheaval in the sport.
“Kids from Kilburn aren’t supposed to win the Tour,” says Bradley Wiggins, current titleholder of the legendary French race. The 32-year-old likes to recall his humble origins when asked how it feels being the first Briton to win the most important Grand Tour in the cycling calendar. Raised in Kilburn, one of London’s roughest neighbourhoods, he comes from a dysfunctional family (his track-racing father was a womaniser and heavy drinker who abandoned his wife and child). Wiggins could easily have ended up as a member of one of those street gangs so ubiquitous in the 80s. He says cycling saved him. Twenty years later he is an Olympic medallist and one of Britain’s most highly regarded public figures. Tribute has been paid to him from all quarters, whether in the form of biscuits decorated with the image of his face, or prestigious awards such as the Vélo d’Or. He was also voted the 2012 BBC Sports Personality of the Year by the British public. During the last Tour de France, the French press christened him “Le Gentleman”, a nickname that doesn’t refer to his performances on the bicycle – efficient but neither epic nor spectacular – so much as to his very English character and his fine dress sense. He has a distant, solitary, obsessive and perfectionist personality, which, enlivened by a touch of hooliganism in his interactions with the press, gives him an attractive aura of ambiguity.
In his book, Racing Through the Dark (Orion, 2012), Scottish cyclist, David Millar tells how his fellow Briton is “a born entertainer. When he’s had a few drinks, Brad morphs into his Liam Gallagher persona, an act that bears little resemblance to his real self. It’s funny watching him trying to be edgy and cool, when he’s one of the straightest people I know.” Perhaps it is this exhibitionist streak which led Wiggins to put his name to a collection of Fred Perry polo shirts and adopt the nickname ‘Wiggo’ – with the ‘o’ being printed as the classic mod target on his helmet, jersey and bicycle. He has managed to transform his name into a brand by playing, very cleverly, with two iconographies: firstly, he taps into cycling history’s rich visual heritage in his work with photographer and fellow mod enthusiast, Scott Mitchell, whose black and white portraits of Wiggins hark back to the old photos of Tom Simpson and Robert Millar – two great British cyclists he admires. Secondly, Wiggins pays homage to the style and music of 60s Britain, benefitting from the enormous symbolic power which that decade has with UK fans. Mitchell’s work has been a key element in creating and managing the cyclist’s fame, bringing a new, artistic and pop-cultural focus to the world of cycling. It has also influenced the communication policies of the Sky Cycling Pro Team as regards their audio-visual content and use of social networks. This type of communication strategy creates icons, just as in the world of football and pop music. It’s about writing your own story, before anyone else can write it for you, by bombarding the public with photos, videos, news and tweets.
Professional cycling and 60’s mod culture might seem like opposing worlds: the first being populated by skeletons on two wheels, sunburnt and suffering, and the second made up of nightlife-loving hedonists and dandies. But obsession has played a large part in both cultures, as has the excessive consumption of legal and illegal drugs to help increase endurance. The recent case of Lance Armstrong is proof of the extent to which doping has become prevalent in this sport. Wiggins has always publicly declared himself to be a totally clean cyclist and champion of a new mentality in cycling, something he reaffirms in his latest autobiography, My Time (Yellow Jersey Press, 2012). But it is, perhaps, telling that Tom Simpson, one of his childhood idols and also a trendsetter, both on and off the road, died of a heart attack while ascending Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour. That tragic consequence of a fateful cocktail of heat, alcohol and amphetamines turned the bicycle-racing world upside down, and, as a result, the decision was taken in 1968 to introduce anti-doping tests. Perhaps Simpson’s death was as ‘mod’ as they come. Those were the 60s – times were different then.
Translated from Spanish by Benjamin Palmer
* Originally published on March 6th 2013 on La Vanguardia’s “Cultura/s” supplement: http://www.lavanguardia.com/20130306/54369019355/el-estilista-de-la-carretera-olga-abalos.html