If you were going to commission a film about Bradley Wiggins’s life, this was the year to do it. Embark upon the project in 2011 and you’d have caught on camera the moment an in-form Wiggins crashed out of the Tour de France at stage seven with a fractured collarbone. But in 2012 you have an embarrassment of riches. As Wiggins cycled through the jubilant streets of Paris on his way to becoming the first British rider to win the Tour de France in its 99-year history, director John Dower must have been grinning from ear to ear.
But even in 2012, racing in the form of his life, triumph for Wiggins in Paris was never guaranteed – with so many riders competing, the gruelling French route is always ripe for crashes.
What was presented to viewers of Sky Atlantic’s A Year in Yellow was Bradley Wiggins, the paradox: a man with a split existence. According to his long-suffering wife, Kath, he is two different people. “My husband is brilliant: he’s good, considerate, patient, kind, brilliant with the kids. I wish I could have him all the time.
“But then there’s this cyclist, and he’s a bit of a tw*t. He’s selfish. It’s like he’s a train going through: everything around him is scattered regardless of childbirth, moving house, whether I’m sick or not. He’s not doing it because he’s cruel or selfish. He’s doing it because he can’t see.”
It was that cycling bubble that the documentary often chose to pick up on, depicting Wiggins’s relationship with Team Sky’s general manager Dave Brailsford, his “bigger brother” and a self-described “loner”, and coach Shane Sutton, who lives alone above a bicycle shop and treats his charge like a surrogate son.
The magnitude of the task in hand was not lost on Wiggins’s support team at the start of the season. He may have been greedily attempting to land both the Tour and Olympic titles, but Sutton was doubtful of his ability to achieve the former. “I think he’s missed his chance – if Bradley was ever going to win the tour, it was last year.”
If there was any misconception as to exactly what cyclists endure during training, it was dispelled here. You felt extra guilty as you kicked back on your sofa to watch Wiggins training in the mountainous terrain of Mallorca. Ahead of the relentless climbs of the Tour (65,000ft to be precise – that’s the equivalent of three Mount Everests) Wiggins admitted that “all you want to do is pull the plug, but you can’t”.
The split personality we saw at home in Lancashire was also visible in training. “There’s two Bradleys,” explained Sutton. “On the bus he’s the life and soul of the party; then you have the real, serious side.” One minute Wiggins was joking around on camera, comparing the lazy French countryside to a scene from ‘Allo ‘Allo!, the next he was back on his bike – rehearsing the exhausting route, all leading him closer to his dual goal of Tour and Olympic glory.
Viewed with hindsight, the physical demands of the Tour itself often faded into the background. There is no doubt that the 3,496km race through the French landscape is one of the toughest events in the sporting calendar, but watching footage through rose-tinted glasses, safe in the knowledge of Wiggins’ eventual victory, it was easy to overlook the highly-pressured environment he was forced to endure.
Every member of Wiggins’s team seemed wary of how he would react under the media spotlight. An inability to cope with the constant attention from the press might have proved crucial during the three weeks spent racing. “On the Tour you have 200 riders, but over two thousand journalists,” explained the general director of the race, Christian Prudhomme. “And the journalists are right next to the cyclists – much closer than at Wimbledon or the French Open… On the Tour it is more mixed.”
The antagonistic nature of the cycling media was demonstrated in Wiggins’ expletive-ridden rebuttal of accusations of doping, made on Twitter while he wore the coveted yellow jersey. The use of performance-enhancing drugs is a particular sore point: “I don’t want to ever have to explain that to [my children] – to me it’s not worth doing it. That means more to me – this is just a bike race, it’s not life, it’s not reality.”
The issue of reality is one Wiggins kept coming back to. He often appeared like a deer caught in the headlights – a fan of cycling who does what he does because winning the Tour and Olympic gold are childhood dreams of his. But the need to stay grounded in the media circus was an issue he continuously revisited: “It’s like being in a goldfish bowl.”
Following his triumph in London in front of an ecstatic home crowd, a mere ten days after toasting his success on the Champs Elysees, Wiggins was filmed still reeling from the adulation of the British public. “People use the word ‘legend’ a lot – they’ve certainly been saying that word to me – and I don’t feel like a legend. I’m still from fairly humble beginnings. I am determined to remain as normal as possible.”
His words may be humble, but his actions on the road speak for themselves. A Year in Yellow was a scrapbook of one of the great achievements in sporting history. It’s easy to revel in the success of Team GB without considering the hours spent in gruelling training sessions – and it’s one thing to be informed of the hard work of elite sportsmen, but quite another to see it played out first hand in the months leading up to competition.
A Year in Yellow was more than a glorified snapshot of Bradley’s golden year. It offered a fascinating insight into the insular world of the hugely successful Team Sky, but refused to sidestep the effects of Wiggins’s success on his family. The buzz around Wiggins when he returned from Paris may have brought them champagne at the Ritz with Sky bosses, but the police at the end of the garden path were also part and parcel of his success. It is clear that life will never be the same for the “ordinary bloke from Kilburn”.