HAMPTON COURT, England — On Wednesday morning in London, it was as if the tabloids had declared an Olympic truce: Neither The Sun nor the Daily Mirror was fixated on any sort of scandal. Their main story was not ticket fiascos, athletes being trolled on Twitter, or British medal letdowns. Instead, in the name of Wiggo — Great Britain cycling hero and Tour de France champ Bradley Wiggins, who was racing in the time trial — the tabs went goofy. They served up front-page cutouts of his sideburns.
This was Wiggo Day at the Olympics. Team GB began it without a gold to its name, and its biggest icon was expected to end that drought on a 44-kilometer time trial course lined with fans wearing real, fake and newsprint sideburns and waving Union Jacks. The 32-year-old Wiggins’ “mod” look — he has been called the fastest mod on two wheels — is more famous here than Anthony Davis’ unibrow or Brian Wilson’s beard is in the U.S. One of the youngest Wiggo sign-bearers I ran into, 15-year-old James Garratt of Leicester, had painted on ‘burns with his mom’s mascara:
Why is Wiggo such a British icon, I asked? “He’s just so cool,” Garratt said. “A lot of people are really inspired by British cycling.”
Hours before the time trial was to begin, Team GB’s women’s pairs rowing team won gold and took the drought-ending pressure off of Wiggins — but given that gold favorite Mark Cavendish finished 29th in Saturday’s road race, Britain’s cyclists were still in need of some redemption. History suggested that Wiggins, despite being undefeated in time trials this year, was not a lock: No cyclist had ever won the Tour de France and an Olympic time trials gold in the same year, due to the difficultly of the 10-day turnaround.*
* Wiggins, however, claimed that this wasn’t a big deal. In a first-person piece in Wednesday’s Guardian, he wrote:
Next up is the time trial. It’s been a long road to get there; my buildup for the Tour began on November 1 last year, and that buildup always took into account the fact we would be racing the time trial nine days after the Tour and three days after the road race. I’m not worried about recovering from the road race. I was exhausted at the end, we all were, but I’ve had three days to recover. I don’t think it’s as much of an issue as it seemed nine months ago. On the final Saturday of the Tour I rode one of the best time trials I’ve ever done in terms of numbers, and that came after a hard 220km stage the day before and two tough stages in the Pyrenees before that. In comparison, doing the Olympic road race and then having three days off is a doddle.
A doddle, for those not schooled in British expressions, is their equivalent of a cake walk. And Wednesday’s race was one grand doddle, starting from the yard of Hampton Court Palace, which made for an incredible backdrop:
“There’s not much better than this setting, with that castle,” Wiggins said. “It’s so British, isn’t it?”
As the No. 1-ranked rider, he started last, at 3:07 p.m., and was seen out of the castle by a flank of 17 soldiers, shooting him with their iPhones:
Wiggins proceeded to tear up the course, which followed the River Thames west, then jogged back toward Hampton Court before looping southwest through Esher, Hersham and Cobham, and looped again to return to the Thames, and cross the finish line just outside the palace. He showed no real signs of fatigue, but that’s what his peers expected: “Even on the last night of the Tour,” said Australia’s Michael Rogers, who finished sixth, “[Wiggins] didn’t even have a drink — not even a glass of wine or champagne. He said, ‘No, I’ve got another goal.’”
That to win his fourth Olympic gold and his seventh overall medal to pass rower Sir Steve Redgrave on Britain’s all-time list … which Wiggins did by coming in a full 42 seconds ahead of silver medalist Tony Martin of Germany, and one minute, eight seconds ahead of British teammate Christopher Froome. This was Wiggins just before the finish line, with the rail-hanging Brits going mad:
Asked what he thought Wiggins should do now, Froome said, “He better celebrate.”
Wiggins celebrated initially by making a U-turn out of Hampton Court Palace, whose yard was restricted to a handful of VIP fans and media, and riding back out to the course to share the moment with the crowd at large. Sue Herriman, who along with her teenage daughter was a wearing a Wiggo mask — they didn’t stop at just sideburns — said Wiggins was so beloved, in part, “because he’s a down-to-earth athlete.” He’s a mod*, the world’s best cyclist and a man of the people.
* Wiggins apparently has a Prodigy tattoo on his right shoulder, which isn’t so mod according to the BBC, but the only ones visible during the race were sentimental in nature. He has “B”s on both wrists for his kids, Ben and Bella.
When Wiggins got the inevitable “What Next?” question, he seemed to come to a realization: “In terms of sporting achievement,” he said of the Tour-and-Olympics double, “there’s nothing higher.
“So that’s it, really. That’s it for me.”
Wiggins didn’t mean retirement. He was just acknowledging his status as a legend, in a reserved, man-of-the-people sort of way. Photographers begged him to wave the Union Jack, and he obliged. Soldiers asked him for autographs, and he obliged, and then he finally exited the palace, knowing that it would all be downhill from here.
(For SI cycling expert Austin Murphy’s column on the day at Hampton Court Palace, click here.)