Blazin' Saddles

Heroes of 2012: Bradley Wiggins

Eurosport-Yahoo! has been profiling the Heroes of 2012 all week. After his editor rejected a 6,000-word paean to Maxim Iglinsky, Blazin' Saddles reluctantly consented to a crowd-pleasing Wiggins tribute.

Six months ago most British people had not even heard of the man who on Sunday, in all likelihood, will be crowned BBC's Sports Personality of the Year.

Fresh after winning cycling's coveted Velo d'Or award, Bradley Wiggins is odds-on favourite to take the SPOTY gong in a year where - let's be honest - swathes of British sports stars boasting considerably more personality could feasibly be voted above the man who ended Britain's long wait for a Tour de France winner (and then capped it off with the Olympic gold medal everyone expected of him).

On the back of Wiggins's astonishing achievements on a bicycle in 2012, even sideburns - last fashionable back in the '70s - regained a cachet unseen since the days of Elvis.

As Wiggo's star grew following his Tour-Olympic double, the shy and often confrontational 32-year-old was even forced to shave off the famous mutton chops that stuck to him even more than Chris Froome over the entire course of a triumphant season.

Burns or no burns, it's Bradley Wiggins who wins Blazin' Saddles' vote for cycling's hero of 2012 - but only by a whisker.

'By a whisker?', you say. After such a opening eulogy, how can anyone be so churlish as to suggest that Wiggo's position as the year's most heroic cyclist hangs by a thread. Surely no one comes near this British bulldog in terms of achievements on the bike?

This is true. Wiggins was peerless in 2012. What he achieved transcended all sporting boundaries: not merely a cycling hero, Wiggins became a sporting legend.

Even before his victory in the world's most famous cycling race, Wiggins became only the third rider in history (after the illustrious Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx) to win both Paris-Nice and the Criterium du Dauphine in one season.

Add the Tour of Romandie to the mix and you have a never-done-before triple - an unprecedented hat-trick that for most cyclists would be the crowning moment of a season, nay, a career; but for Wiggins it was merely an amuse bouche to a sumptuous main course that he had not only to source, prepare and cook - but also serve up on a plate for the world to devour.

In a sport understandably filled with as many highs and lows as an Alpine stage profile, Wiggins managed to maintain his form throughout a whole season - rubbishing modern day cycling's widely-held concept that a rider can peak too early.

Ever since his fourth place in the 2009 Tour, Wiggins believed that he had what it took not only to become the first Briton to make the podium in Paris - but to be the first to secure the maillot jaune. His move to Team Sky reflected those lofty ambitions and few riders would have had the inner-strength to turn things round after the despair of 2011 - where Wiggins' Tour was thwarted with a broken collarbone in the opening week.

His Tour victory was a personal success as much as it was a collective one. Wiggins also made history for his country and for his sport - not only as already outlined, but also in becoming the most decorated Olympic cyclist in Britain alongside Sir Chris Hoy.

And yet, and yet... Let's bring out the Devil's advocate for a bit of perspective.
Would Wiggins' presence on the Tour have been missed had he crashed out again in week one? For thousands of British fans — many of them new to the sport — certainly. But for cycling fans around the world, less so.

Put simply: the 2012 Tour would undoubtedly have been a better, more entertaining race had Wiggins not been involved. Wiggins and his drilled Team Sky killed the race as a spectacle - turning it into a one-sided parade not seen since the days of US Postal.

But where the now-shamed Lance Armstrong at least blew the race apart with his trademark EPO-fuelled explosions in the mountains, Wiggins' win was cold, calculated, professional and lacking in any form of panache. The one rider who could have injected a little oomph into proceedings - Wiggins' team-mate Froome - was kept on a leash and forced (wrongly or rightly) to work for the collective team cause.

Apply this kind of thinking to the Giro d'Italia, Vuelta a Espana and other major races and the outcome is very different.

Would the Vuelta have been a better race without its overall winner, Alberto Contador?

Would the Giro have been as exciting in the absence of both the surprise winner, Ryder Hesjedal, and his jack-in-the-box sparring partner Joaquim Rodriguez?

Would we have seen a more animated classics campaign without Tom Boonen?

The answer to all the above is a resounding "no".

2012 was filled with performances that - taken alone - were infinitely more heroic than anything done by Brad Wiggins.

Boonen's Flanders-Roubaix double was also history in the making - and the Belgian's gutsy solo attack 55km from the Roubaix velodrome was one of the most beautiful things witnessed on a bike in the modern era.

Rodriguez's two Grand Tour podiums, five stage wins, Fleche Wallonne scalp and rain-soaked Giro di Lombardia triumph made him the season's No.1 cyclist in terms of UCI points. Just recalling his relentless contribution to wonderful, attacking cycling makes the UCI's decision to drop Katusha from the WorldTour even more deplorable.

Contador's magnificent and totally unexpected attack on stage 17 of the Vuelta propelled the Spaniard into the red jersey and was arguably the move of the season.

The list goes on. To name but a few: Thomas de Gendt's stupendous solo ride on the Stelvio; Peter Sagan, still only 22, winning three stages and beasting the green jersey in his debut Tour; Thomas Voeckler's marvellous Alpine-Pyrenean double.

And then there's the men off the saddle to whom so much is owed. David Walsh and Paul Kimmage, two journalists who risked everything in their long battle to uncover the unsavoury truth of the Armstrong era; Travis Tygart, the CEO of USADA who saw the Armstrong case through after it had been chucked out of the US federal court; Greg Lemond, who stood up for his principles in the face of an increasingly flagging International Cycling Union and who is now being presented as a viable alternative to those threadbare figureheads who stand accused of complicity in encouraging what Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle coined "the secret race" of the EPO era.

But this column is not about these valiant men behind the scenes - nor is it about isolated individual moments of glory. It's about looking at achievements by one person over the course of a whole season. And while the purists' favourite Rodriguez delighted with every pedal stroke - you can bet your house on the Spaniard swapping all that for the kind of season Wiggins managed to deliver.

Wiggins, in spite of all the charges you could level against him, stands above all the others - and not merely his fellow cyclists.

It has been pointed out by other esteemed writers on Eurosport - just look at this week's (eloquent yet erroneous) earlier piece on the unparalleled individual heroics of Andy Murray - that Wiggins' achievements account for less by virtue of them being secured with the help of others.

Codswallop.

Did you see a team when Wiggins pulverised his opponents in both the Tour's individual time trials - one pancake flat and the other undulating and technical?

Did you see a team when Wiggins rode onto a gold throne amid a flurry of 'V' signs at Hampton Court during the men's Olympic time trial?

Granted, Wiggins was helped out by his Sky team-mates (and most notably Froome) during the gruelling three-week Tour. But Wiggins had to get himself into peak condition to warrant the team leadership in the first place - an accumulative process over years, not merely months - and then prove on a daily basis that he was still Sky's main man in France.

You don't sandbag your way to winning the Tour de France - and three other major stage races - during the course of one season. A team helps, sure, but it means nothing if the individual is not up to it.

Besides, would the psychologically brittle Murray - renowned at slipping up at the last hurdle - have won the US Open or the Olympic gold without Ivan Lendl on his own team? Possibly not.

It has also been argued that Wiggins benefited from the absence of quasi-favourites Contador and Fabian Cancellara in the Tour and Olympic ITT respectively. But then again, by the same token you could argue that Murray won the US Open without facing Rafa Nadal or Roger Federer.

While Murray won plaudits for his 'human' emotional breakdown following his Wimbledon defeat to Federer in July, Wiggins, in the same month, failed to endear himself to the masses with his idiosyncratic tendencies, coarse language and abrasive media skills.

But hey, you could argue that Wiggins never had the chance to burst into floods of tears in front of a nation because he never lost in the first place. Over the course of an entire season, he cleared every hurdle. He won everything that was worth winning.

That he was favourite for many, if not all, of these races is irrelevant. The fact that he was favourite in the first place is a considerable achievement in itself.

And now that it's sinking in, Wiggins is finally reconsidering his stance on the coming season. Initially content to let Froome have a crack at the Tour while he concentrated on winning the Giro in 2013, Wiggo is now mulling over a wholehearted defence of his yellow jersey.

The noise from his pre-season training camp in Mallorca is that Wiggins is in far better shape than expected and that, despite the supposedly trickier Tour parcours for 2013 and the return of Contador, Wiggins is ready to draw a line under the most successful all-round season for any cyclist in the modern era, and have another stab at immortality.

This Sunday it will be the BBC gong and then, after a festive period in which Wiggins will once again be forced to make many compromises, he will no doubt be summoned to Buckingham Palace to pick up a knighthood in the New Year's honours list. The fact that the hunger is still there further underlines Wiggins' heroic status.

- - -

HEROES OF 2012

Andy Murray

Laura Trott and Jason Kenny

Didier Drogba

Alex Zanardi