Stage 19 of the Tour de France took a little diversion through Marcel Proust’s Illiers-Combray, which describes itself as “the cradle” of his masterwork, A La Recherche de Temps Perdu. If Bradley Wiggins has managed to capture the hearts of the French, that can be partly explained by the way he harks back to the 1960s, reminding them of Tom Simpson, the most popular Englishman ever to race a bike in France — and English mod culture, which ran parallel to Simpson’s career.
Wiggins’s appearance, cup of tea in hand, on last week’s rest day was an obvious reference to an iconic picture of “Major Tom,” cup of tea in hand, which appeared in the newspaper l’Equipe the day Simpson became the first Briton to win the yellow jersey in 1962.
The Air Force roundel that is used for the “O” in the Wiggo on his racing jersey has also aroused interest. Wiggins’s tongue-in-cheek answer was that the red, white and blue was to show his affection for France’s hero and king of the mountains Thomas Voeckler.
The Tour, it seems, is well on the way to boasting its first mod winner, with massive sideburns, a large collection of guitars and a loudly proclaimed love of The Who and The Jam. However, part of the French liking for the rider who has dominated their Tour for the past two weeks can be explained by the fact that he spent the first six years of his road racing career in France.
“Wiggo le froggy,” read a banner headline in Saturday’s l’Equipe, effectively claiming the man as their own. There is a delightful irony in this: The French have not won the Tour since Bernard Hinault secured his fifth win in 1985, and three of their best teams, Francaise des Jeux, Credit Agricole and Cofidis, will all have let this year’s winner slip through their grasp.
Living in France, learning French and developing a near perfect accent has enabled Wiggins to speak fluently — when he so chooses — on live television after every stage. That is in glaring contrast with Lance Armstrong, who never picked up French. Wiggins’s mastery of cycling’s lingua franca derived partly from a morning television program that he used to record in his apartment in Nantes, France, but also from his widely reported talent for mimicry. Simpson was similarly fluent in French, able to produce cultured puns and brutal put-downs alike.
“He had a surprising knowledge of cycling culture,” said the French climber Jean-Cyril Robin, a teammate at Wiggins’s first team, La Francaise des Jeux, which he joined in 2002. “I had no idea who he was, but he knew who I was.”
His directeur sportif at the team, Marc Madiot, noticed the same thing.
“He was like a big giraffe who’s just come out of the bush, a bit turbulent,” Madiot said. “He was a simple character, completely in love with track cycling, with no rough edges and just wanted to earn a living.”
Philippe Brunel, chief sportswriter at l’Equipe, feels that if Wiggins has hints of Simpson off the bike, in the sharp way he dresses and his readiness with a put-down, he is not the same kind of champion when he races.
“He’s come the same way, through France, which is a kind of unavoidable rite of passage for British cyclists. You can’t compare generations. Wiggins is a product of his generation, like [five-time Tour winner] Jacques Anquetil, a rider who focused on the time trial stages and controlled the opposition in the mountains,” Brunel says.