Sunday saw the Team Sky chapter in Sir Bradley Wiggins’ career draw to a close and with it his last major international road race in Continental Europe. As the 2013 Tour of Britain winner gets set to move over to Team WIGGINS and more appearances at British races, Brendan Gallagher pays tribute to him, having observed much of their five years together at close hand.

Rather poignantly Brad Wiggins’ big-time road cycling career – and five and half years with Team Sky – ended in a velodrome yesterday after a gutsy but unsuccessful attempt to contest the honours at Paris Roubaix. Ultimately he didn’t quite have the condition to be involved right at the death but not for the first time you were left wondering “what if.” He is a rider whose career has taken him down many avenues and his Hour attempt in June will continue that journey but yesterday was the last time we will see him in a World Tour road race 

Bradley Wiggins’ career as a serious road rider consists essentially of just five years 2009-14 during which time he built up and eclectic palmares.  Tour de France winner in 2012 with an upgraded third place in 2009; podium at the Vuelta in 2011, twice a winner of the Criterium du Dauphine and winner of the Tours of California, Britain and  Romandie not to mention Paris Nice. Oh and did I mention that during that period he also won the Olympic and World Time Trial championships and finished Runner Up in the latter on another two occasions. Purely as a road racer that places him right up there in the British pantheon and that of course disregards his three Olympic track Gold medals and seven World track titles, a tally he might yet add to.

His career might have taken a different course had his early ambitions on the road not been derailed by the Linda McCartney team folding overnight early in 2001. That British based team also had high hopes about earning a Tour de France place and Wiggins was one of their major if untested talents. A couple of seasons of promising results with Sean Yates as his DS and Wiggins career could easily have taken another trajectory altogether with much more emphasis on the road.

""When the McCartney team imploded the youthful and shaken Wiggins made British Cycling and the financially well supported track programme his bedrock for the next seven years. Track cycling and the GB team was the constant in his life in is forays into road racing with a succession of French teams, such as Credit Agricole at the 2004 Tour of Britain (pictured left being interviewed by Hugh Porter before the opening stage), were undertaken on those terms.  Track came first and, realising that, the French teams did little to promote or develop Wiggins as a road rider. He was there as a worker and occasional Prologue and TT winner who, as soon as an Olympics appeared on the horizon, would be elsewhere mentally and often physically.  


Above – Leading the way for the Columbia Highroad team during the final stage of the 2008 Tour of Britain in Liverpool
Jonathan Vaughters and Garmin changed all that and although there was a falling out following his acrimonious departure to Team Sky in 2009  Wiggins should always be grateful for the faith Vaughters and his team showed in him. In 2009 Vaughters basically gave license to a leaner, lighter Wiggins to race where and when he wanted – to spread his wings – and it quickly became apparent at the Giro that once he weaned himself away from the grupetto –that he was well capable of dealing with most of the big climbs and was on the cusp of becoming a very decent GC rider.
""The Tour that year saw Wiggins make the quantum leap to ‘contender’ and it is testament to the team spirit at Garmin that everybody immediately swung in behind Wiggins and rode for him when it became obvious the Englishman stood the best chance. Ultimately he just missed out on a podium although his fourth place was upgraded to third in the wake of the Lance Armstrong confessions and his scrubbing from the history books.

Right – riding for Garmin at the 2009 Tour of Britain
That ‘success’ in 2009 was a mixed blessing as it threw Wiggins into the spotlight when he first joined Sky, an environment he perversely both enjoys and hates.  
Having followed the Sky story closely I am convinced that the original idea was to try and sign Mark Cavendish first, to ensure a decent level of early ‘visible’ success for their sponsors and the British fan base. That would have bought the time to develop the team and some of the British riders to the point where there was just a chance of a British rider winning within the five years stated in the team’s mission statement. 
""Sky however missed the boat on Cav and rather late in the day the word went out to ‘Get Wiggins’ whose, then, fourth place at the Tour in 2009 encouraged rather premature thoughts of an immediate Tour victory. Realistically he was still a complete novice in terms of being a GC contender and would have benefited from another season at least without the expectation of victory and team leadership. He was not granted that luxury and although his ‘failure’ in 2010 when he finished a humbling 23rd was painful, it was also in many ways predictable and necessary. Mind you it was still two places ahead of Cadel Evans who was to emerge as a Tour winner 12-months later! 
It was a salutary lesson however and it is to Wiggins’ credit that after a month or two brooding and cursing and a couple of frank – extremely frank – showdowns with Dave Brailsford and Shane Sutton he went to work rectifying the situation.

Below – leading the way during the 2010 Tour of Britain in the Peak District, in Team Sky's special edition 'rainforest' kit, with future teammate Richie Porte on his right shoulder.

Which brings us to 2011, with a podium at Paris-Nice and very promising victory at the Criterium du Dauphine, before a crash bought his TDF to a premature end. People seem to have short and selective memories when it comes to the 2011 Vuelta, when he finished third on a course which in no way suited him, and are prone to retrospectively rewrite the actuality. 
In his season and half with Sky leading into that race Chris Froome, often struggling with health issues, had done absolutely nothing to suggest he was a Grand Tour contender let alone a potential winner. It was truly a breakthrough race for Froome as he relished the steep climbs and summit finishes. Indeed it  was an eye-popping performance which actually caused one or two raised eyebrows among certain members of the foreign press and laid the seeds of future media discord but that comes the territory as Wiggins himself also discovered.
It should also be added that Wiggins was riding in considerable discomfort with a bloody great lump of metal in his shoulder barely six week after dislocating his collarbone in that Tour de France wipe-out. Personally I thought it was nigh on miraculous that he finished in the top twenty let alone on the podium of a Grand Tour or the first time, and a mountainous one at that. He was riding mainly to regain fitness for the World Championships in Copenhagen.
You can look at these things many ways but coming out of the 2011 Vuelta, for the first time in his Sky career, I felt that Wiggins, when fully fit and healthy, was a sure fire podium rider for the 2012 Tour de France and a likely winner on a course that we soon discovered could have been designed with him in mind.  Meanwhile the jury was still marginally out on Froome. Was it a complete one off – as it was for the actual winner of the 2011 Vuelta Juan Jose Cobo – or was it a sure fire sign of long term talent? We now know it was latter but at the end of 2011 nobody was quite sure despite what those with 20-20 retrospective vision now claim.
In the short term Wiggins was clearly the man going forward, with Froome as 'one to watch' for the future, and nothing that happened subsequently changed that. Wiggins was on a massive roll: Silver medal in the TT at the Worlds in Copenhagen and a Man-of-the-Match turn at the front in support of Cav in the road race followed in the first half of 2012 by outstanding wins at Paris Nice, Romadie and the Dauphine. Sensational stuff and nobody at the time doubted for a second his right to ride as Sky’s undisputed number one – that’s another of those retrospective myths that cycling glories in.
Sky didn’t actually make it that easy for Wiggins to win in 2012. With Cav finally on the roster he and Bernie Eisel were selected mainly for sprint duties and Edvald Boasson Hagen was expected to help out in that respect as well. Publically Sky wanted to win everything and that made for a confusing slightly compromised team selection. In 2013 and 2014 Sky picked their nine man teams with only Froome and the GC in mind.
Wiggins also seemed unaware that Froome saw himself as a possible GC contender in 2012, which is significant. If Wiggins had seen Froome as a possible rival rather than a colleague he was well capable of riding a very different race. He had stacks of reserve power in the tank, so much so that in the last eight days, while wearing yellow, he provided no less than three sprint lead outs for Cavendish and Boasson Hagen. Barely a week after the Tour de France he won the Olympic Time Trial for God’s sake. If he had really needed another minute from the two long time trials at the Tour de France who is to say he wouldn’t have found it?  If he had needed to really push it on one of the flatter stages and break Froome the power was there. Instead he rode conservatively and within himself for most of the race. And despite allegedly not being a climber his performances on the climbs were second only to Froome and ahead of a renowned climbing specialist such as Vicenzo Nibali.
In my opinion the Wiggins of 2012 would have beaten the Froome of 2012 ten times out of ten if it had come to a mano o mano duel on that 2012 Tour de France course. Equally the Froome of 2013 would have replied in kind on the 2013 Tour de France. There is no conceivable way that Wiggins could have matched Froome in the Centenary Tour. The Sky strategists got their basic thinking spot on even if it got a bit messy and fractious along the way. Of course the really interesting race would be the Froome of 2013 lining up against the Wiggins of 2012!
Wiggins fell off a cliff after 2013 and although it was painful to watch in many ways I was pleased!  For two years – if you include the abortive attempt on the 2011 TDF – he had lived the life of a monk, knocked  well over a stone off his natural fighting weight, and trained at fever pitch to make the dream come true. It wasn’t sustainable and I for one would have been a little concerned if he had kept pumping out the big Grand Tour wins in the subsequent years. That wouldn't be natural, or believable. Extraordinary athlete that he is, Wiggins was not really born to be a Grand Tour winner and there was only ever going to be a small window when the stars aligned and such glories were possible. 2012 was his last best chance and he grabbed it. 
The Giro option in 2013 was an odd one and frankly seemed little more than a possible way of avoiding a cantankerous Tour de France with Froome. From the off you sensed his heart wasn’t really in it and he would talk of the Tour wistfully and confusingly. Was he going to double up? Was he going to ride for Froome or as the reigning champion did he reserve the right to defend his title? Mentally he wasn’t right and that’s when the descending glitch set it. Wiggins is a perfectly ok descender but like most pro cyclists can lose his mojo when things aren't 'just so' mentally. That's what happened in 2013 in the cold and wet of a demanding Giro.
?He missed the Tour eventually through a knee injury and looking back that was a good thing. Neither Froome nor Wiggins would have been happy riding in tandem in 2013. It didn’t feel right and was one of the few things that could have derailed Froome who was in stunning form that year. In many ways 2013 was a swine of a year for Wiggins but we judge him by extraordinarily high standards. In 2013, lest we forget, Wiggins did nonetheless recover to win his national Tour, the Tour of Britain, with a dominant display including a time trial win at Knowsley (pictured below) and again finish Runner Up in the World Championship Time-Trial. For most British riders that would constitute a career best season.

By 2014 he looked back to his best. He breezed it at the Tour of California, clocked up a rare top ten at Paris Roubaix for a GC rider and again finished on the podium (see below) at the Tour of Britain with a stage win in London. He also put 26-seconds into the remarkable Tony Martin to finally take Gold at the Worlds which many consider his finest ever ride.
""Yes, of course he should have been granted one final ride in the Tour de France with its Yorkshire Depart. His form warranted it and in a big mental shift he had made riding as a super-domestique for Froome a big target for the season. He would have added massively to Sky's firepower without in anyway threatening Froome and his non selection was an opportunity missed.  
If Wiggins had been ungracious towards Froome after 2012,  Froome’s autobiography in 2014 in turn reignited the arguments,  ironically after all had seemed ‘love and peace’ at their winter training camp in Majorca. Meanwhile Sky’s public statements on the selection issues surrounding the 2014 Tour de France could be confusing to follow. It wasn’t anybody's finest hour and there are those who might see an element of karma working when Sky’s 2014 Tour campaign hit the buffers.
And so to Wiggins' final season with Sky although effectively it was just a short Spring campaign and a final pot at Paris Roubaix, an indulgent and heartfelt thank you in my opinion from Sky really for services rendered. They occasionally shouted at each other, fell out and made up, laughed and cried but together they also achieved great things.
Wiggins can be difficult, moody, contradictory and unpredictable but he can also be magical and inspiring on and off the bike.  Last week I wandered into my local WH Smiths to buy Cycling Weekly and eventually found it surrounded by no less than 13 other cycling magazines staring at me. Many individuals and organisations can lay claim to the still scarcely believable explosion of cycling interest in this country but Brad Wiggins and Team Sky are right at the very top of that list. Together they wrote a significant chapter in road cycling's history.