The Brad Wiggins Bubble

Dec 17 2009

winginsA week has passed since the worst-kept-secret in cycling officially became a done deal. It’s been spun, analyzed, broken-down and overblown in all ways imaginable, but from my point of view, Toto’s cheekily delivered analysis hits closest to the mark—Brad Wiggins was “flipped”.

After the 2008 season, Wiggins was an also-ran in the world of professional cycling; a talented trackie who’d always planned to pick it up on the road, but couldn’t seem to deliver. Even as an obvious favorite in the short TT, Wiggins seldom came through, picking up a single ProTour win: the ’07 Dauphine prologue. Despite a fistful of gold medals on the track, his stock was understandably low.

It’s not that Wiggins ever lacked the ability to do what he did at the ’09 Tour—it’s that the market hadn’t recognized it yet. The impact of the Garmin-Slipstream refurb was evident at the Giro, and his 4th place finish in the Tour made him one of the most sought after riders in the peloton, culminating in a jump to Team Sky for a rumored $8 million—a textbook flip. And like so many flipped properties, it’s my contention that the final terms of sale were massively inflated.

Nothing against Wiggins, but in recent history, the Tour de France is not a race you “almost” win. Breakthrough Tour rides are almost always one-shot deals. Soler, Kohl, Sevilla, Julich—all were tabbed as potential winners based on sudden, notable rides before fading (under varying circumstances and to various degrees) in subsequent years.

induEven riders who’ve steadily climbed the result sheet (Evans, Menchov, Karpets, Leipheimer) seldom take home the giant stuffed teddy bear at cycling’s biggest ring toss. Even Carlos Sastre’s and Oscar Pereiro’s victories can be credited more to the absence of stronger contenders than their own personal performance.

The pattern for Tour dominance since 1990 is clear—a rider leaps to the top after taking up a GC focus, and enjoys years of success before a sudden denouement. Indurain never finished between 10th and first at the Tour. Armstrong had never lost a single post-cancer Tour, but finished more than five minutes off the top step in ’09. Indeed, Contador—something of a surprise in 2007—seems to have established himself as the next Tour great with the performance of this past summer.

But even if Sky had truly considered the odds against Wiggins’ repeating his ’09 success in the future, I still can’t imagine they could have let him be. One needed only hear the swooning adulations of David Harmon on Stage 17— crediting the erstwhile Garmin rider with a “brave” ride, even as he was swept off the podium and out of the Top 5—to understand the passions Wiggins has stirred up the world of British cycling.

For Team Sky, the title of biggest British squad in the history of the sport would be all but meaningless without the biggest British Tour threat since Tom Simpson on the roster. The legions of American fans who awkwardly pulled for Lance, Levi, and Horner on a Kazakh-owned franchise last season should have no difficulty appreciating that sentiment.

I like Brad Wiggins, and I wish him the best of luck over these next four years. But if 2009 was the year that introduced cycling to big-ticket deals, I’ve a sinking feeling that 2010 will be the year it’s introduced to buyer’s remorse.

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