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When Johnny met Bradley
Photo by Ben Ingham
By Johnny Green
“In the city there’s a thousand things I want to say to you
But whenever I approach you, you make me look a fool
I wanna say, I wanna tell you
About the young ideas
But you turn them into fear”
- Paul Weller
The Christmas lights of Covent Garden were twinkling. Bright shop windows were adorned with colour, sharp art for stylish goods of all shapes 'n' shades. It is urgent that there are brands to be pushed, desired product to be flogged. Designer cool mingled with desirable tat. Shoppers bustled 'n' shoved, danced nimble side steps to avoid those absorbed on mobile phones.
Seven Dials is some weird epicentre to link up with a cyclist outta season. A small roundabout in the heart of the city, the hub is wrapped in scaffolding, maybe a festive tree, perhaps a challenging art installation. It was way too cold to bother checking it out. The lanes spun off like spokes. A hunched figure beetled across the junction. It was Guy Andrews, your editor, clutching what appeared to be two paving slabs, right size 'n' weight, like a magi bearing holy offerings. They were copies of Timm Kölln’s brand new monster book The Peloton. How out of place they looked, these savage stark portraits amongst the exfoliated beautiful people. One book was a gift, a sweetener from Rouleur, for Bradley Wiggins who I was due to meet shortly in some swanky nearby boutique hotel. Guy 'n' I ducked into the nearest boozer. Lo and behold!
There was our man Wiggy. I had to double-take because he wasn't on his bike - the same kinda idiot savant take that Montezuma's Aztecs had on Cortez's Spanish conquistadors on horse-back, thinking animal plus man-in-armour were one whole creature. Wiggo was dressed sharply, in smart threads. I watched the way he moved around the cramped crowded corner of that bar, his balance good for a surprisingly large bloke, neat 'n' precise footwork between the stools 'n' chairs, careful yet apparently careless, innate. I'll bet he can dance real good (for a white man) when he's had a few.
Photo by Ben Ingham
We sat and he talked, straight and to the point. No duckin' or divin'; no flannellin', no mod mumblin'.
JG: How d'ya do, Bradley. Let us speak of Coppi and Pantani.
BW: [laughing] Let's talk about Keith Richards. Have you read his autobiography?
(Oh shit, I thought. I had been determined to get through this entire interview without mentioning dopage. Like Basil Fawlty in a parallel universe, I was telling myself, "Don't mention the drugs." But The Wigster rejoiced in the tale of Adam Ant queuing patiently in line recently in Waterstone's to get his copy signed by Keef. Fame in two directions, ebb 'n' flow - a perfect start for a man high in the sporting spectrum. George Michael and Madonna belched outta the pub's speakers.)
BW: Wish this was Ian Brown. He's cool. Are we here to talk about cycling?
JG: Not necessarily.
(At this point, your photographer, Ben, persuades Brad to crush himself into a corner for a photo shoot, muttering, "The eyes, its all in the eyes," whilst I'm jaggin' to him, "The shoes, shoot the shoes." It was becoming confusing.)
JG: Your book, On Tour, is brave.
BW: It was about documenting what it's like to ride the Tour de France, success or failure. With hindsight, it is all the more interesting because it went tits-up. The photos tell the story of what that race does to your body. Obviously it wasn't planned to be like that. Going into it, I was thinking that I was going to be Audley Harrison beating David Haye. It became apparent after round one it wasn't gonna happen. You don't know until you go in there. In a lot of sport, there is this premeditated media training…
JG: Although you'd had this amazing year in 2009, you nevertheless put your neck on the line. I thought, when I read your book, hats off to you. But how come you are so much into retro music? There is a playlist inside your book…
BW: Music was my first love before cycling. For some reason, it seams fascinating to people that you can have a personality towards music and still be a top sportsman. You don't all have to walk about in a Daley Thompson tracksuit and trainers 24 hours a day and be this archetypal sportsman. I go with a lot of my mates to gigs and concerts but, you know, you're not supposed to because their perception is of your sporting persona - they associate it with not being disciplined. But you've got to have a life outside of your sport.
JG: I would hope so.
BW: As a kid growing up, I listened to my uncle's record collection and my granddad's - you know, Chas 'n' Dave and stuff.
JG: Me too - fantastic!
BW: From that I went on to the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Howlin’ Wolf. From a young age, it was always there.
JG: You're a London boy - Harrow Road. Tell me about live music.
BW: My first gig was when I was 12, in 1992. I went to the Shepherd's Bush Empire for Ocean Colour Scene and that's where the mod thing happened for me. All these boys turned up on scooters, impeccably dressed, and I was, like, I wanna be in that gang. That was it for me. I was at a multi-cultural school and then Weller came along with Stanley Road in '95, then lookin' back at his work in Style Council and The Jam. His influences, tracing 'em back, through Small Faces and Steve Marriot - like satellites taking me to another world.
JG: You never lose that first impact, do you?
BW: Right. I actually met someone who was at Woodstock and saw Hendrix play - phew…
JG: So as a retro man, where do you stand on hats - helmets - which I'm not fond of stylistically?
BW: I couldn't go back. Not any more. I did the Paris-Nice in 2003 and I was behind [Andrei] Kivilev when he died - no head protection. It's like seatbelts, and once upon a time no one wore them and now everyone takes care. Helmets on bikes is a reality.
JG: And then someone at ASO figures, what will happen if we remove earpieces for one day? How was that?
BW: It was a load of codswallop, to be honest. We protested by not racing properly. It's like goal line technology - things have moved on.
JG: Ah, the football… Do you still go, take an interest?
BW: Yeah, I go but it's no longer Arsenal. I was at Liverpool recently when they beat Chelsea - brilliant!
JG: I notice in the press room at the Tour, the sporting culture is rugby not football. Loathsome.
BW: Well I'm based in the north of England these days, near Wigan, and it's all rugby league around me. It's a brilliant place to come home to, especially after three weeks on tour, doing the same thing every day. I'm grounded with dogs, horses, sheep. I have become a rural man. Like some old-time rock star. I love it. Everyone needs an outlet.
JG: Ha ha! Like Keith Richards strolling in his estate in Connecticut. With Team Sky, everything is done for you and nothing is left to chance. Is that helpful?
BW: I think we might have gotten too obsessive this year in trying to stay one step ahead of the game. We tried to predict the weather - maybe trying to be too smart and eliminate chance. Hopefully we've learned from that.
JG: So back to mod, Brad… Do you know about Pete Meaden?
BW: Yeah, yeah - he roomed with Pete Townsend, went to art school together, used to manage The Who, was the first strong link with style. He said that being mod was "clean living under difficult circumstances". I'm not sure that applies any more under the modern day, which is why I'm not a hundred per cent, but I do like what it stands for. I grew up on a council estate in central London so I understand about that attitude to look smart and pristine when you've got no money.
JG: Ah, bang on. Nothing to do with… [Shh! Don't mention the gear!]
BW: Yeah it's crucial to me, in cycling terms, to be clean and presentable, so when you're out on the bike… It's summed up in the team time trial: crisp formation, white British skin suit. It's how I look at life, almost a religion, never forgetting where you come from, being true to your roots, not getting high 'n' mighty. That's how I try to live my life and teach my kids. Sometimes it is difficult not to get carried away with your own self-importance. Outwardly, it might sometimes appear otherwise. Mark Cavendish is a classic example. People think he's arrogant, but if you knew Mark on a personal level, he's nothing like that at all. He's the most down-to-earth, honest person you could wish to meet. In the past, British riders underwent less intense public scrutiny…
The conversation was cranking up the interest level when the spell was broken. Some old girl comes into the boozer, face flush from the instant heat, her eyes aglow in recognition of her hero.
"It is you! Bradley! I saw you through the window. Unbelievable. I'm reading your book, On Tour, at the moment. I've left it on the bedside table."
"Right", says Wiggy. "So where did you get this copy?"
She's shifting her steamed-up glasses, clutching the book, then thrusting it at him.
"When I saw it was you in the pub, I shot off round the corner to Waterstone's and bought one. Would you sign it please? Fancy, an Olympic champion like you in a pub in the middle of the afternoon!"
The Wigster is cool, friendly and helpful. This lady's day has been made by a piece of the finest juju. Who's gonna believe her when she gets home?
Wiggo himself, I suspect, is going to have to become used to being spotted as a national patriotic symbol for the London 2012 Olympic Games. Local boy makes good, on home turf, all kitted out in the red, white and blue of the flag. Thing is, the '60s mods used it as an ironic device to depict the demise of empire…
As I go to wish the man well, he's gone. He hovers at the edge of the bar, barely perceptible foot shapes, shuffles towards the door and then, zoom, out 'n' gone, like the move of a rider off the front of the pack, lookin' for that combativity award.
I tucked my faded Ben Sherman shirt in, picked up my little bag of mementoes and slipped away into the chilled city night.
"Dizzy in the head and I'm feelin' blue
The things you've said, well, maybe they're true."
- The Who, I Can’t Explain
Johnny Green is former road manager of The Clash and author of Push Yourself Just a Little Bit More: Backstage at the Tour de France
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