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Wiggins wins – and not by a whisker

July 27, 2012

I was walking up Union Street in Rawtenstall, a real ‘1:1’ steep hill, when a bloke struggling up on his bike, dressed in the full pro-cycling gear, was yelled at by a kid from the other side of the road ‘Go, Brad!’ I know he didn’t actually mistake him for the man who has just made history in the Tour de France – he was older, slower and the bike wasn’t a Pinarello Dogma 2 bike, but to hear a kid yell anything but abuse at a middle-aged cyclist suggests Bradley Wiggins, complete with facial whiskers and a name from a Dickensian novel, has caught the public eye.

There’s no doubt that a British winner of the Tour de France, after a mere 109 years of waiting, has caught the imagination. Regarded as the largest annual sporting event on the planet, the Tour is also rated one of the most fearsome. With 21 stages, its challenges include 5,000m of climbing in the Alps and Pyrenees, often in a single stage – imagine climbing Ben Nevis three times in a single day!

Wiggins’ title comes after a crash forced him to quit the Tour last year with a broken collarbone. This time he had a faultless Tour, snatching the lead in the Vosges mountains on stage seven and then  domination of the general classification with a superb time trial victory three days later in Besançon. The mutton-chopped, 6ft 3in tall Wiggins then defended his lead through six daunting mountain stages. The result was that three years after Wiggins equalled Scot Robert Millar’s previous best British result of fourth, the Tour had a British winner.

It is the relentless climbing and falling, the soul-destroying length of the Tour de France that makes it one of the most physiologically demanding events on earth. Nearly half a million pedal strokes cover 3,497km through some of the most rugged terrain in Europe; the race demands the same level of fitness as running a marathon for 20 days consecutively. Cyclists have to battle through 21,000m of climbing, it is like scaling Mount Everest three times. Wiggins put in 100,000m of climbing to prepare for the race. During the race contenders will burn 8,000 calories per day. The biggest climb on any single day is equivalent to nearly 10 Eiffel Towers.

Browsing Amazon, in a frenzy of memories of bike clips, punctures and cycling to school and the bike sheds, I’ve just downloaded ‘It’s all about the bike’ by Rob Penn. It’s the story of a journey to design and build a dream bike. I was looking for the answer to this question: ‘Is it the bike or the rider that makes a winner?’ Penn explores the culture, science and history of the bicycle. From Stoke, where an artisan hand crafts his frame, to California, home of the mountain bike for his perfect wheels, via Milan and Coventry, birthplace of the modern bicycle, it is a narrative of a love affair with cycling and hugely readable. It’s a tale of perfect components – parts that set the standard in reliability, craftsmanship and beauty – note Brooks, manufacturer of the legendary B17 saddle, first made in 1896 and possibly the oldest extant cycle component. Must be a relative!

So, why has it taken so long for a Brit to do well in the Tour? Penn offers an insight. From the start, the sport of bicycle racing in the UK was strangled by the convention of Victorian rule-makers. For us, the sport largely consisted of ‘time trials’, codified in the 1890s by Frederick Bidlake, a man with a peculiarly British passion for timekeeping. Competitors set off at intervals and ride alone, against the clock. In Europe, massed-start rides like the Tour de France were much more popular with breakaways and sprint finishes, chases and crashes, suffering and solidarity, tactics and competition, vanity and honour. Massed-start road racing is underpinned by the unwritten etiquette of the peloton, something so complex that not even a Victorian Englishman could codify it into a booklet of rules. As the French say of cycle racing: Courir c’est mourir un peu.

Ironically, the first ever organised road race in France was won by an Englishman with ‘mutton chops’, James Moore. On a cold, wet day in November 1869, 100 cyclists gathered beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. At 7.30am, a flag was waved and the riders set off for Rouen, 125km to the north-west. Paris-Rouen set the first marker in the enduring relationship between bicycle racing and human suffering. Moore is reputed to have said before the race: I will get there first, or they will find my body in the road.

I’ve got all nostalgic reading Penn’s book and following Wiggins’ exertions. I recall my dad’s reminisces about his schoolboy jaunts from Liverpool to Llandudno, and moments of awe and freedom on a bicycle. For me, I recall flying down a hill with no effort on the way home from school, and enjoying the rhythm of two spinning wheels on a lads trip to Anglesey, the resurgence of hope pedalling to the top of a hill with the beads of effort on your forehead and you spot the pub – next door to a chippy! If you have ever, just once, sat on a bicycle with a singing heart then you share something fundamental with Bradley Wiggins, and I hope you cheered him down the Champs-Elysées.

But amid the speed of the massed peloton, the glamour and the television images, it’s easy to forget the daily, monthly, yearly grind of training, competition and travel. For Wiggins, it is truly all about the bike, so how do you build a Tour De France winner? One thought from research on Olympic athletes, it appears, is ‘Come Second’.

To excel in sport you need the right body to suit a particular event but there is also a combination of other factors that are often not recognised. Research by Ben Oakley, from the Open University, shows that coming second is not something most coaches recommend but, with hindsight, most champions recognise that this is one key to success. How athletes respond to failure and learn from it is part of what shapes a champion.

Winning was fairly easy for Steve Redgrave as a teenager, but his failure to make the top 12 in the 1983 World Championships he cites as the turning point in his career. His rowing partner Matthew Pinsent also tasted failure, finishing second at the 1993 World Championships. ‘Some people can lose and very quickly get out the emotional bandage that is the ‘we did our best’ routine. Much more likely is that I settled for second well before the race was over, talked myself into a corner and never got out of it. It was a painful lesson.

Studies of champions suggest a common characteristic: their ability to have a vision or a vivid awareness of what it takes to succeed. World Class performance comes from a hunger to fulfil a goal just out of reach but also understanding how to get there. Oakley!s research found four key elements:

Technical Coming second often highlights what an athlete needs to improve, whether technique or the whole training regime, as opposed to a complacent champion who doesn’t feel the need to improve anything. A new coach and a training programme helped Mo Farah to world championship success in 2011. After a number of years without success, he started to spend long periods away from his young family training in Kenya before relocating to USA to work with Alberto Salazar. At the 2011 world championships in South Korea he took silver in the 10,000m and gold in the 5,000m. Significantly, after finishing second in the final of the 10,000m, he identified his need for a faster final lap time of 51 or 52 seconds to claim gold. A simple technical change brought success.

Mental Coming second imbeds an incredibly powerful motivational spur to do better. US gymnast Shawn Johnson, who won a gold and three silver medals in 2008, recalls his hunger: I remember the 2007 world championships and making many mistakes and missing out on a medal. I just remember that feeling and the fire lit inside me to never want to feel it again.

Resilience: Innate or learned? Being ‘mentally tough’ is often talked about when dealing with setbacks. There is an ongoing debate whether this is a personality trait or it can be learnt. Are champions born with the mental tools to withstand pressure and coming second or is it something they learn? Track cyclist Victoria Pendleton who under-performed at Athens in 2004 came back to multi-gold medal success in Beijing four years later. She says over the years I have had to learn to become a lot tougher, a lot harder and more assertive, verging on aggressive … those aren’t natural characteristics for me.

Chasing or being chased There is a paradox here. On their way to the top, athletes talk about chasing the elusive gold medal and finishing ‘a very close second’, which can help by identifying technical and mental improvements required. However, once they become champions they have a difficult adjustment to make in shifting their motivational orientation from chasing to being chased. Michael Johnson’s response to this was his striving to be the best I can be, every time I run which draws on the belief that to successfully defend a championship is often viewed as the mark of a true champion.

Bradley and his Tour winning bike will be an enduring image of success, a big hearted champion, both physically and mentally. Winning in the moment it matters isn’t an accident, it’s by design. Ben Oakley’s research highlights the four key attributes needed, so make sure you’re wearing the yellow jersey when it comes to crossing the finishing line.

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