Sporting perspectives: a British pinnacle

Sir Chris Hoy suggested that Bradley Wiggins’ victory in the 2012 Tour de France should be recognised as the greatest achievement that British sport has ever seen. Jonathan Ives takes the opportunity afforded by the distance of winter to offer a personal assessment of the Hoy Hypothesis.

Bradley Wiggins: smiling from the pinnacle of British sport

When Chris Hoy offered the opinion that Wiggins’ victory in Le Tour should be recognised as the greatest ever achievement by a British sportsman it was a mark of respect from one multiple Olympic champion to another. Coming as it did in the midst of a unique summer of British sporting success  one would be inclined to forgive Sir Chris a little hyperbole while the scale of the achievement of a victory in the world’s toughest bike race – perhaps the world’s toughest race – sank in and we all measured the implications of the maillot jaune for British cycling and the nation’s sporting sensibilities. In the cold light of a post-Olympic winter we would be able to weigh the achievement rather more judiciously, settling in by the fire to ruminate and see the Wiggins victory from a more measured perspective. Now, with this sporting annus mirabilis drawing to a close and having taken the opportunity to muse at length on the Hoy Hypothesis, we have arrived at a carefully considered, rationally objective conclusion: Sir Chris is right.

The simple facts of the Tour de France – the thousands of kilometres covered, the thousands of metres climbed, the unrelenting nature of three weeks of continual competition, the Byzantine tactical considerations, the nuance of the etiquette and unwritten rules, the crowds, the media, the pressure on those contending for overall victory – are sufficient to make the premise worthy of consideration but a proper understanding of the scale of Wiggins’ achievement is rooted in an understanding of the history of professional cycling and the uncertain, rather tentative nature of initial British involvement.

The Tour de France has since its inception in 1903 represented the pinnacle of the sport of cycling but, even after half a century of gruelling competition on ‘the Continent’, in the UK it was only followed by small bands of aficionados who would swap mysterious French-language papers and magazines along with stories of the handful of Britons who had left their homes in the valleys and the dales to try their luck in a strange land.

The stories of these young men are stories of genuine adventure and they are worthy of the retelling. Where once cricket was the only sport that could be properly said to have had a literature (US readers may care to add baseball to this list), the bookshop shelves now groan with cycling-related titles. Beyond the ghosted autobiographies and the timely cash-ins of modern sports publishing (what price now a copy of It’s Not About the Bike or even John Bruyneel’s We Might As Well Win?) there is a wealth of cycling histories and biographies that enable the interested reader to gauge the scale of the achievements of the Brits who accepted the challenge of crossing the Channel to enter a different world, a world where the scale of that challenge was unimaginable to those they left at home. On the shoulders of pioneers such as Brian Robinson, Barry Hoban and Tom Simpson stood subsequent generations of British riders, a list that includes names such as Robert Millar, Paul Sherwen and Malcolm Elliot, all of whom built their careers on hard-fought European victories long before the Brailsford revolution began the process of equipping British cyclists with the career pathways and the professional support that put them at the heart of continental competition.

Cycling’s English-language literature reveals a world of hardship, rivalry and intense competition for these intrepid riders. With only the most basic support from French teams and managers that cared little for interlopers from their own spheres of interest and even less for foreigners that might upset the simplicity and self-interest of the status quo, these British would-be professional riders found themselves right at the bottom of the list of desirables as they tried their hand in the cut-throat, exclusively Francophone world of professional bike racing. And in the distance, just visible beyond this most testing of sporting environments, lay the Tour de France, a shimmering promised land where only the most fortunate and most accomplished few could hope to turn wheels with the mythical heroes of the world’s greatest race.

Had a lone Briton eventually stood on this pinnacle through individual brilliance, a genetic quirk perhaps that resulted in someone with a British passport and a British accent being acclaimed as the new Merckx , it would have been remarkable enough. That Wiggins’ yellow jersey is, by his own admission, the culmination of a long-term strategy devised and delivered by a team built by and within the British national governing body for cycling, an organisation that was once a by-word for ineffectual haplessness, puts the achievement into the realms of the incredible. To those trying to forge a cycling career in the post-Simpson era of the 1970s and 80s the prospect of a solvent and effective governing body with the facilities, coaches and vision to enable a British rider to realise his talent would have been unimaginable and, given their own often penurious and isolated circumstances, laughable. A British stage winner was a remarkable achievement worthy of the greatest plaudits British sport had to offer; the thought of a British maillot jaune was a fantasy for small boys riding their bikes on the scruffy streets of their home towns.

The role of British Cycling and its senior coaching staff, led by Peter Keen and then Dave Brailsford, in the transformation of British cycling from also-rans who were liable to get lost on the way to the start into the dominant force in the sport has been well documented but somehow the story seems more remarkable each time it is told. From Chris Boardman’s gold in the Olympic individual pursuit in 1992, Britain’s first cycling medal for generations, to Wiggins on the top of the podium in the Tour de France, Britain’s first ever grand tour winner, is a distance that should be measured in sporting light years rather than decades. How many other people in any British sport would have been able to map out a journey that incorporated winning medals on the track to secure funding, building on consistent medal-winning performances to make Britain the number-one nation in track cycling and take this track experience into a road racing team with the declared aim of winning the sport’s greatest accolade? How many other people in British sport if they had been able to conceive of such a pathway would have had any idea of how they might then go about pursuing it? How many other people in British sport with the ability to pursue it would then have had the skill, courage and determination to actually deliver it?

We know the answers to these questions. Generations of sports fans have grown tired and old watching numerous British sports struggling with the first faltering steps towards competence, never mind the sort of leaps of faith, imagination and achievement that transforms not only national performance in a particular sport but actually transforms the sport itself, whether on the track, with Great Britain’s unprecedented dominance prompting the international governing body to change the rules to thwart them, or on the road, where the GB road team has been at the forefront of driving the demand for a new, clean approach to competition. That this leap has been made in only 20 years is something that those within positions of influence in the Football Association must look at with bewildered wonder. Were we to try to imagine cycling’s achievements in the context of football – which, given the current dominance of football within the nation’s sporting appetites, we are probably obliged to do – we would be forced to create a vision of a group of committed footballing enthusiasts hearing tales of the San Siro and the Maracana, and, while they played three-and-in against a garage wall somewhere in the rain, they hatch a plan of one day seeing the captain of their national team lift the world cup. That the Football Association actually achieved this pinnacle, albeit in the game it invented and codified, albeit on home turf and albeit only once, and, despite its stated aims, its massive ambitions and its huge wealth, has failed to achieve it again in the last 50 years only adds weight to the Hoy hypothesis.

When Dave Brailsford launched the British Cycling road team wearing the logo of its new sponsor and declared his intention of winning the Tour with a British rider “within the next five years” many commentators, this correspondent included, thought that for the first time Brailsford may have let the excitement get to him  and stepped over the line into hyperbole. We know better now. Brailsford was wrong but only in the sense that it did not take that long. Bradley Wiggins would be the first to admit that he is not the new Merckx but he is, and always will be, a winner of the Tour de France, the world’s toughest and the world’s greatest race. He will always be the first British winner of the maillot jaune and it will always represent a Briton’s greatest sporting achievement.

Jonathan Ives is the editor of The Leisure Review and veteran of several embarrassingly pedestrian Etapes du Tours

The Leisure Review, December 2012

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“Having taken the opportunity to muse at length on the Hoy Hypothesis, we have arrived at a carefully considered, rationally objective conclusion: Sir Chris is right”

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