When Bradley Wiggins was briefly caught in the media spotlight after winning last year’s Tour de France he said, “Kids from Kilburn aren’t supposed to win the Tour’’. The BBC’s Mr Cycling, Simon Brotherton, knew exactly what he meant.
“I have been covering the race for 20 years, and watching it for longer than that, and for most of that time it didn’t occur to me that a British rider could win the Tour de France,” says Brotherton. “It was always people from somewhere else who won. That’s the main difference. Before we had some success despite the system, but now we have success because of the system.’’
Now as Wiggins gears up for the first Grand Tour of the season – the Giro d’Italia – and Britain’s sporting media prepare to follow him en masse, the weight of expectation hangs about him as closely as the peloton. The bookies are sure more glory is on its way, with Bradley favourite to win the Giro’s pink jersey, although Italian Vincenzo Nibali has a decent shout.
“The Giro always has to go through the Dolomites and that’s the key part. That’s where it is won and lost,” says Brotherton of a race route that, while far from flat, is considerably less mountainous than this year’s Tour de France. Wiggins is not at his strongest in the mountains, which explains Team Sky’s preference for him to aim at winning the Giro rather than the Tour. “The Giro includes more than 90 kilometres of time trialling,” explains Brotherton. “You can see why it would be particularly appealing to Wiggins.’’
In all the Wiggo hoo-ha it’s easy for the newer cycling fan to overlook the history of road cycling, and just fawn over La Grande Boucle – as the Tour is known – in the same way a fair-weather football fan enjoys a World Cup.
The Giro has been part of the cycling calendar since 1909 and as such is only six years younger than the Tour. But the idea of RT contacting commentator Simon Brotherton to discuss the Giro d’Italia would once have been preposterous, given that 20 years ago he had to fight for a microphone to cover the Tour de France.
So what changed? “The Tour coming to England for two stages in 1994, and the emergence of Chris Boardman – both of which played into my hands. Boardman won the first day of the Tour that year, the prologue in Lille. We had a Brit in the yellow jersey, and then the next day, on the stage from Lille to Armentières, a policeman stepped out onto the road to take a photograph and there was carnage. While it’s not nice, people do love a crash. We made Radio 4’s Pick of the Week!’’
Two decades later and everything has changed. “I used to sit around the TV and wait for the 10- or 15-minute Saturday lunchtime resumés on World of Sport with Dickie Davies. Eventually, I was so wrapped up in it that I used to listen to commentary of on French radio. They were going mad about it!’’ Now it seems Britain is, too.