Ah, victory. It’s absolutely everything in the world – and then again, it isn’t. Is victory harder in the Tour de France than in any other sporting event? Is it sweeter? Sir Bradley Wiggins was the first British winner of the men’s Tour in 2012 (Nicole Cooke having won the women’s Tour in 2006), and a week later he won an Olympic gold medal in London: not a bad year.
As cycling’s greatest race enters its second week, Wiggins – who appears every day on The Breakaway, Eurosport’s post-race review show – tells me it’s a shame that there are no serious British contenders in this year’s Tour: no Chris Froome, no Geraint Thomas. A British rider has won six of the past seven Tours, but it won’t happen this year. “It’s been challenging for everybody and we’re lucky to have the race,” says Wiggins. “It’s been very difficult for the riders to prepare: how do you peak when you don’t know when it’s happening?”
At least we have a Tour, even if it’s in September rather than July. Wiggins will be there: “You always forget what it’s like. I can’t imagine doing anything like riding the Tour now. It lasts three weeks – it seems like a long time to me now, and I’m just doing the TV.
“But I remember that it can seem mundane and repetitive: so much of it is a mental game. You have to get up day after day and get on with the race.” The Tour is an ordeal: each rider must face a daily question of how much more he can take, and if it’s all really worth it. Those of us who merely watch are entitled to wonder if the riders get up one morning after the halfway stage and think: do I really want to do this today?
“No,” Wiggins says, “I never did feel that. And, by the way, I think you’ve just defined the difference between winners and losers.”
OK, then: what’s it like being a winner? Not just a winner, but the winner? And suddenly we are back in 2012, on the 19th stage, a 53km time trial from Bonneval to Chartres. The riders set off knowing there was only this stage left to secure victory as the final stage into Paris is traditionally one where the race leader isn’t challenged. They started in reverse order, so Wiggins, with a narrow lead, set off last.
It was the ride of a lifetime, swift and decisive, turning a half-decent lead into an unassailable one. “I remember the last five kilometres. I remember getting to the point when I knew I’d won the Tour. I was filled with flashbacks and memories, and I had no control over them. I was cycling hard, negotiating bends, avoiding the public, controlling the bike – and at the same time I was remembering cycling in Regent’s Park with my grandparents.” It was, he says, something like an out-of-body experience: utterly strange, totally unforgettable.
“Lots of other memories kept coming – it was the strangest feeling I have ever had in my life. That must have been the meaning of life for me then. I’d spent decades dreaming about doing it. I’d never imagined winning, but I’d dreamt it. Winning – that must be what I’d lived for. I could admit that to myself now that it was actually happening.”
These peak experiences mark for life those who go through them: and in sport they can come frighteningly early. Many people never get over it, and spend a lifetime preferring the golden past to the gritty present. “Yes, well, it’s all downhill from that,” Wiggins says, and it’s hard to read how serious he is. “You look back and you realise how important it all was. And it seems almost pathetic – pathetic that it meant so much to me at the time…”
This interview originally appeared in Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.