“I started racing on the Eastway site – the old Lee Valley cycle circuit.Where the track is now used to be the old finish straight.”
Sir Bradley Wiggins is explaining his choice of the velodrome in Stratford for his Hour Record appointment. The 6,000-seat arena was built on the east London circuit demolished to make way for the Olympic Park. It will be something of a homecoming for the the Kilburn-raised 35-year-old.
“I’ve never ridden on it – it will be nice to do one before I retire for good,” says Wiggins, among whose palmares are the Tour de France, seven World Championship victories on track and road, and four Olympic golds – including one for the road time trial at the 2012 Games for which the aforementioned velodrome was built. He has also, this year, launched his eponymous road cycling team. And he has the track team pursuit at Rio 2016 to work towards before he calls it a day. Given all that, why attempt the Hour Record at all?
“I think I’m obliged to do it for the good of the sport, in some ways,” Wiggins explains. “The record has been re-established and people like Jens Voigt have had a crack at it. So aside from thinking I can break it anyway, and it’s achievable, as world champion, Olympic champion, all these people look to you and say: ‘You need to do this for the sport.’
“Personally, I feel like I can not only break it, but put it up there with some of the greats. Beyond Miguel Indurain’s [53.040km]; up there with Tony Rominger’s [55.291km]. And so continue this versatility in terms of having done Paris-Roubaix, winner of the Tour, world champion, madison, track team pursuit, Hour Record holder. It’s another string to the bow.”
Because of the advanced nature of the bikes they used, both Indurain’s and Rominger’s records were downgraded by the UCI – cycling’s governing body – to ‘best human effort’. Seven attempts have been made since the UCI changed the rules last May to permit the use of modern track pursuit bikes. Four have been successful: Voigt, Matthias Brändle, Rohan Dennis and Britain’s Alex Dowsett, whose unified record stands at 52.937km. Wiggins believes he can smash it.
“If I do 55km on the day, I think that’d be a good one.”
Wiggins has a target in mind. “I wouldn’t have thought I’d go much quicker than that,” he explains. That figure is based on the numbers he has hit in 16-minute blocks in training. He posted data from his first week back on the boards on his Instagram feed in April.
“I just thought I’d let people know what I’m doing,” says Wiggins. “Because I’m unemployed now. So I’m my own man. I’ve not got Team Sky putting posts up every day, so I just thought I’d let people know what I’m up to so people aren’t sat there thinking: ‘Is he actually training for this thing, or…?’”
Eddie Merckx, the most successful rider in the history of the sport, described the Hour as the hardest thing he has ever done on a bike. Prior to our interview, Wiggins had spoken about his expectations of his own attempt and how it will be like “holding on for grim death”. That said, he tells us he can’t imagine it being any different to what he has experienced in the past:
“Whether that’s the last 10km of the London Olympic time trial; the last 10km of the worlds last year; hanging on with 5km to go up the Tourmalet in 2009 in the Tour. Cycling is what it is. In its purest form, it’s a case of suffering at the hardest moments. And the Hour Record will be no different. And I actually really enjoy that part of it. That’s where you make the difference. That’s what makes you a great athlete, or someone who got close to the record.
“Because if it was a 45-minute record, a lot more people would be challenging it. But it’s an hour. And the last 15 minutes is what makes you great. A lot of people can match you for half an hour, 20 minutes, 40 minutes, 50 minutes. But it’s the difference. Last year at the worlds, I was leading Tony Martin by nine seconds going into the last 10km. And I beat him by 32 seconds in the end [Wiggins actually won by 26.23 seconds on a hilly 47.1km course in Spain]. So it’s the difference between what makes you good and what makes you great. And that’s what the hour record is all about.”
Psychologically, Wiggins will approach his hour attempt as five lots of 12 minutes.
“First 12 minutes, it should feel easy,” he says. “You start, you’re fresh, the crowd’s going and you’ve just got to keep the line... but obviously you have 50-odd minutes to go. The last 12 minutes are horrible. That’s the 14th round – Thrilla in Manila stuff. So you forget about that, because that will just happen. When you get to that stage, you’re just putting your hand in the fire for as long as you can.”
The Hour will suit Wiggins’ style: his greatest victories with Sky were built on his ability – primarily as a time trial specialist – to sit in and suffer longer and harder than most.
“Sky was an incredibly intense period – five years.”
We ask Wiggins what he will miss about being part of Britain’s most successful cycling team.
“Not a lot really, to be honest,” is his reply. “It was all about specific goals, winning races. I had the best people around me, I benefited from that system of ‘we want to be the best’. The best coaches, the best equipment; they put the best people around you... I had all my road success there. I won everything with them. And I had the backing of them throughout those years. And it will continue to be successful. And I’m sure they will win many more Tours de France.
“[But] it was very business-like. And perhaps not the most enjoyable period in my life, but at the same time it was the most successful period. So, yeah, it’s not a case of: ‘We had a great time and it was a laugh every minute.’ There were some pretty stressful, pressured moments. A lot of expectation as well, especially in those Tours. It was a successful period – that’s how I’d sum it up.”
Wiggins describes being at Sky as like playing for the best football club in the world and being expected to score every week.
“A bit like being Gareth Bale,” he laughs. “And if you’re not able to, someone else will. I wouldn’t say it was cut-throat in a horrible way, but that’s the reality. It’s about winning races, and it’s a 12-month cycle. And the minute you finish one season you’re planning for the next. Unless you can keep up with that, and not have any other distraction in your life, then it soon falls away... I’m just glad I had my time and I took it when it was there.”
Wiggins repeats that he won’t miss the intensity of Sky. “And the atmosphere that creates among everyone,” he explains. “New people come in every year and want that success, and if you’re not willing to stay up there, then you are soon thrust to one side.”
Wiggins has, since we spoke, raced against his former colleagues for his own team at the first Tour de Yorkshire. We suggest it will be a strange feeling when he faces Sky on the road.
“Yeah, it probably will be,” he says. “I feel quite institutionalised at Sky. In every way. I find myself checking my phone now and again to see if I’ve had a shitty text message saying: ‘Why don’t you pick up?’ I’ve been in that regime and that system for so long that it will take a while. I guess as every day goes by I realise more and more now that, yeah, you are free. [Laughs] The handcuffs are off. So I have my own team now, and these youngsters to inspire. And they’re looking to me now. And it’s kind of nice. It’s a nice feeling.
“I had a big clear out last week, getting rid of all my Sky stuff. Because I’ve got five years of it accumulated. So I find myself going out for bike rides, and putting on a pair of gloves: ‘Oh, they’re Sky, I can’t wear them again.’ Things like that, I have taken for granted every day. I keep coming across little pockets of kit and giving it to the milkman or giving it to the bloke who cleans the windows: ‘Take that, would you?’ Or: ‘You don’t want a helmet, do you?’ It’s just funny.”
“This team is about engaging people and inspiring people.”
Wiggins tells us his new squad does not operate, in the same way that many historically have, with sponsorship dependent on results or getting a name out there.
“We’re not really a results-based team,” he says. “This team is about engaging people and inspiring people. It’s more of a brand team really – with a goal, to Rio, and the team facilitating a programme around that.”
It also exists, Wiggins explains, with the aim of developing young British talent:
“If they aren’t ready for the ProTour or the Team Skys of this world, then hopefully there’s a home for those riders without them having to go to America or France or Italy and face the pressures that all these other people have had to go and do. Or feel homesick, or feel pressurised into doing things they shouldn’t be doing, or whatever. There’s a home for them here, where we can develop them and take them to Europe and race as a team, and then come back to Britain. And there’s an educational process around that in the anti-doping world, teaching them life skills as well. Because some of these kids have never lived away from home. So, washing their bikes, maintaining their bikes.”
“It’s not this elite team that people don’t feel they can associate with.”
Wiggins’ hope is that his team becomes neither a squad of superstars, nor a conveyor belt of success.
“It’s not always about the success,” he says. “It’s broader than that. Because I think that’s really important in this day and age. There’s not many sports, if any, where you can go along and kick a ball around a park with Steven Gerrard. [But] you can come and ride with us when we go out training in Yorkshire the day before the race. I think that inclusiveness is what the sport needs now.”
Wiggins says he will be doing “quite a bit” with his road side until the track season begins in the winter, when his schedule will become more GB-dominated. He will compete in the Isle of Wight, at the Tour of Britain and the Prudential RideLondon-Surrey Classic. But he will, he assures us, also find time to rest:
“After the Hour attempt I’ll probably have a bit of a break. For the first time in 15 years I’ll have a family holiday in July with the kids when they break up from school, rather than Dad going off to France for a month. I’ll come back from there, and it’s pretty much full-on from the end of July to the Olympic Games.”
Wiggins will race on the track through the winter, with the European Championships in Switzerland in October, and the World Championships in London next March. The Olympic Games next summer will come around very quickly.
He still puts the London Olympic time trial in his top three road career achievements, alongside the last weekend of that year’s Tour.
“Winning the [penultimate stage] time trial in Chartres,” Wiggins recalls. “Leading Cav [Mark Cavendish] out on the Champs-Elysees and winning the Tour – that weekend. And probably Paris-Roubaix last year. Being in the final with all my peers, the people I look up to. And in their world, as it felt like.”
It didn’t quite happen for him at Roubaix this year, where he finished 18th.
“Yeah… that’s just the way the race is. It’s such a lottery, you know.”
No regrets, then? No giving it one last try?
“No. There’s always that. But that’s the danger. I mean, look at Steven Gerrard: one year too many. And I love him to bits. I was happy to be in the final in Roubaix. I won a race the week before as world champion, and I sort of feel like I’ve gone out at the top.
“There’s always the temptation: ‘Why don’t you go back to America this year and try and win the worlds again?’ But you’ve got to stop some time, and I always wanted to go out on top. I don’t want to be like some punch-drunk fighter who keeps coming back for more – one last hurrah. I’ve been very lucky, and I’m glad. It’s time to move on to other things.”
“Chris Boardman used to say to me: ‘It’s not life and death. No one is holding a gun to your head.”
We have asked Wiggins an old Sport favourite: what’s the best advice he has been given in his career?
“But I still come back to that thing that James Cracknell said to me about rowing the Atlantic. The thing he learned from that was: no matter how hard something is, there’s an end point. It always has to end. Whatever it is. And it might last 30 years, but it will end.
“I’ve held that – with everything in my life, actually. If I think times are tough, well – it will end. The Hour Record? It’s only an hour, and it’s done. Tour de France? Three weeks, and it’ll be done. So there’s always an end point. It’s a natural thing.”
Watch Sir Bradley Wiggins attempt to break the world hour record at the Lee Valley VeloPark on Sunday June 7, live on Sky Sports