Bradley Wiggins is uncomfortable, and people have noticed. Wiggins, reigning tour champion and therefore de facto leader of the pro peloton, ruffled feathers in the cycling community with his comments earlier in the week on the Lance Armstrong situation.
Wiggins spoke of some people who were ‘eaten up’ and ‘bitter’ about the whole Armstrong affair, citing journalist Paul Kimmage as an example, who might feel a sense of vindication now that Armstrong is confessing. His choice of terminology has brought criticism, the use of the word bitter especially, while others have wondered why his own criticisms of Armstrong have waned over the years. Contrast this to the excoriating statement by Nicole Cooke upon her retirement, and you’ve got one ready made anti-doping champion and one equivocating Tour de France champion.
But it’s not quite that simple.
In the past, Wiggins has been as blunt as they come about dopers, calling them ‘cheating bastards who pissed all over his dreams’. The idea that he was losing clean to dirty riders was infuriating, and rightly so – and as we’ve seen with Cooke’s statement, he’s far from the only one. In fact, one of the key reasons many choose to dope is because they’re sick of losing their livelihood to cheats. But over time, Wiggins has grown stronger and his contempt for dopers seems to have declined – at least his criticisms in the press have.
Wiggins explains this pretty flatly – now he’s winning, and winning clean, he isn’t bothered by dopers so much, because they aren’t cheating him out of a living. While this is correct, it’s pretty self-serving, and this is where others begin to criticise. As reigning maillot jaune, plenty such as Kimmage, David Walsh and others believe it’s a responsibility to speak out for the good of cycling, to be the politician and figurehead that Wiggins is clearly reluctant to be.
Kimmage is a spectre that looms large over the issue of drugs in cycling. A former pro himself, he blew the lid with his excellent autobiography, Rough Ride, only to be shut out of the sport by self-serving teams, riders and journalists who buried their heads in the sand. A man with a permanent chip on his shoulder, his professional life since has been dedicated to investigating drugs in sport, and in cycling in particular. His response to Wiggins’ comments was typically provocative, tweeting ‘Interesting that Brad Wiggins is still following the Lance Armstrong blueprint for success. 1. Ignore the message. 2. Attack the messenger’. By linking Wiggins to Armstrong, Kimmage provides fuel for those fans who believe Wiggins himself to be a doper, while also drawing attention to his previous comments on Armstrong.
These are worth examining, because Kimmage is intertwined. When Armstrong announced his return from retirement in 2008 (when he was still considered ‘clean’, even if the evidence was stacked against him), Wiggins said it was good for the sport. Kimmage, famously, did not, and this conflict came up in an interview he conducted with the Brit in which Brad felt he was being ‘scrutinised constantly… I felt I was being set up a little bit as a voice for his beliefs’. Wiggins isn’t the only rider to be uncomfortable with the style of Kimmage. David Millar recounted in his autobiography, Racing Through The Dark, how Kimmage misunderstood his reaction to the positive test of Alexander Vinokourov and wrote a scathing article criticising his ‘tears for a cheat’.
Kimmage has developed an almost untouchable reputation among the wider community of cycling fans and journalists for his consistent attacks on dopers and those who facilitate, yet he seems willing to criticise riders for not just doping, but not speaking out against doping in a way he finds acceptable. For perpetuating the omerta, the code of silence. It’s a black and white issue to him, and other influential journalists and fans – and when the figurative leader of the peloton doesn’t attack with the same venom, this is a problem.
What does it suggest of Wiggins? That he doesn’t find Armstrong a problem? Hard to believe when he says, in My Time, ‘if it were confirmed that he was doping in 2009-10 then he can get fucked, completely’. Wiggins comments are simply personal ones – he is intolerant of dopers who are ruining his livelihood, and he is struggling to come to terms with the fact he is expected to look out for other peoples careers too. It is not something he accepts, telling GQ‘I understand why people ask the questions they do about cycling, but for me, personally, it is something I struggle to cope with and to keep responding to. I feel uncomfortable being the voice of today's riders.’
What he continues to be intolerant of, and understandably, is the continual association of this era of cycling with the EPO generation that came before. He isn’t alone in saying the sport is forever changing, with teams and sponsors prioritising clean cycling more than ever before. Yet with all these dopers, such as Lance, Hamilton, Landis, Basso, Ullrich and tragically, Pantani, out of the sport, it is left to Wiggins and others to carry the can and answer the questions. Not a press conference goes by without a doping related question, and the shadow of Lance looms over everything cycling related this winter.
Wiggins is no politician. Neither is Mark Cavendish, who reacted pretty badly to continued Armstrong questions when attending the launch of his new team. Neither, for that matter, is Lizzie Armitstead who unintentionally strode into the debate this week and got a hatful of Twitter abuse for it. Her eloquent response stated that she was ‘part of a new generation of cyclist who compete honestly and quite rightly feel upset and disappointed that it is suddenly an expectation of me to be a politician’. How many sports, or professions, expect their current competitors to atone for the actions of their predecessors? I wonder how Kimmage or others would feel if, wherever they went, they were equated with phone hackers. At every event they succeeded at, someone belittled them and said they broke the law to get there. At every dinner party, on every holiday, at every meeting, someone was asking about phone hacking, what they knew, why aren’t they speaking out more against their colleagues.
Not everyone was born to be a politician. Athletes get into sport for the love of the sport, to win medals and competitions, and to test themselves. To suddenly become the moral compass of a profession, to answer for its sins or atone for its mistakes, is a false expectation that is rarely asked for. Some are happy to carry the can. Some refuse to tolerate it. While Wiggins PR might not be to the taste of Kimmage and other vocal fans, to equate him to the biggest cheat in the history of his sport because of it is cheap.