Wiggins' exploits a breath of fresh air

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2012, 12:00am


Never mind the Olympics. All of Britain is already celebrating a historic sporting moment thanks to the exploits of the sideburned Bradley Wiggins.

Known to his friends in Chorley, Lancashire, simply as 'Wiggo', the Englishman has caught the imagination of the country after becoming the first Briton to win the Tour de France. Just imagine Andy Murray winning Wimbledon and you can guess the degree of euphoria sweeping through this nation readying to host the biggest show on earth.

One British newspaper put Wiggins's feat in perspective when it pointed out that seven years ago there was no British cyclist in the Tour de France. It said this was due to a historical lack of interest in the sport, adding cheekily that this was also partly down to a sense that the race was unwinnable by anyone possessed of a sense of fair play.

Cheating and cycling have become almost synonymous, more so now that the seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, the man who helped romanticise the event, is facing doping probes in the United States.

But Wiggins has proved true British grit and the Corinthian spirit of fair play is a potent enough cocktail to spur one to victory. A week ago, when the race was up in the energy-sapping Pyrenees, somebody scattered sharp metal tacks across the road. This resulted in about 30 cyclists suffering punctures just before one of the most dangerous downhill stretches of the race.

Wiggins was not one of the casualties, but he slowed down because he felt taking advantage was not the right thing to do. This has earned him accolades from all quarters. Not only is he a champion, he is also a gentleman. He proved winning need not come at all costs.

It is a timely reminder on the eve of the London Games. Cheating at the Olympics has become as common as a cyclist on a British road these days. The most celebrated, or rather disgraced, figure was Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who was stripped off his 100 metres gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics after testing positive for drugs.

Way before that and long since then, the Olympics have been tarnished with drug cheats. The jaded amongst us will say it will not be long before these Games too are embroiled in a doping scandal; that it is not a case of if, but rather when, it will happen.

So it is a breath of fresh air, as embracing as the clean air of the city of Winchester, to hear and read about the exploits of Wiggins. But even before his triumph, cycling seems to have become the latest craze to hit Britain.

Judging by the scores of riders I saw on my first day in England - taken on a tour of this former capital of England and the beautiful countryside that surrounds it by a friend's mum - the sport now has a strong following.

This is what success can do to a sport. And British success in cycling came four years ago at the Beijing Olympics, when the cycling team won a clutch of gold medals. Wiggins was among the winners, which also included Mark Cavendish, Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton. British Cycling, the UK governing body of cycling, says the explosion in popularity has seen its membership double to 40,000 since 2008 and it expects this to rise to 100,000 by next year.

With the heroics of Wiggins these past weeks, and with further success at the Olympics looking likely, this projected figure could rise even more.

A London School of Economics survey has revealed that 13 million Britons cycle regularly and that the nation's gross cycling product is worth GBP3 billion (HK$157 billion) a year.

It did not say if austerity was the reason why more Britons were taking to cycling. But it is clear that cycling is more than a fad these days in Britain. As one British Sunday columnist sniffed, 'cycling has become our most fashionable activity, primarily driven by what the industry calls Mamils (middle-aged men in Lycra), with abundant disposable income and an appetite for healthier, greener lifestyles.'

When Hong Kong's King of the Road, Wong Kam-po, makes his own bit of history on Saturday - he will be the first Hong Kong athlete to take part in five Olympics - in the road race, he could find himself rubbing shoulders with Wiggins.

Team Great Britain seem certain of gold medal success at the track events and in the road race and this will underline Britain's growing prowess as a cycling-mad nation.

Well, the British have to be good at something. Murray flirted with victory at Wimbledon a fortnight ago before doing the usual and folding to Roger Federer. England's cricket team might hold the number-one test ranking but they got well and truly spanked by South Africa. Their cousins in rugby union have had little to shout about since Clive Woodward's class of 2003 won the World Cup.

You have to go even further back in history when it comes to the greatest passion in this country - soccer. The heroics of the 1966 World Cup-winning England team are now lost in the mists of history even though the British media play them up every time a major tournament comes around.

Wiggins' feat is thus welcome news to a nation starved of success at major sporting events. It was no small wonder he was one of two hot topics as we drove around Winchester. It goes to prove the British are at least good at one thing: winning while sitting on their backside.