DUBAI (VN) — Bradley Wiggins sits at breakfast, tucked into a corner of Le Meridien hotel wearing a blue and red Team Wiggins t-shirt that fits a bit tighter than it would have three years ago. Hotel patrons and race staff bustle around him, paying little attention to the Tour de France champion, world hour record holder, and four-time Olympic gold medalist. He leans on a tattooed elbow and pokes at an iPhone. The rest of Dubai’s racers are in a different hall, eating their morning buffet. Wiggins is alone, a few hundred physical meters and a symbolic world away from the Dubai peloton.
In Dubai, Wiggins is a bike racer at a bike race with no intention of bike racing. That was clear from the first sentence of his first public utterance.
“First off, I have no intention of doing anything,” Wiggins said to open the pre-race press conference. His voice hinted at a combination of amusement and exasperation in the media’s desire to talk to him anyway. The change in attitude in the two years since his Tour de France victory is remarkable.
But there is a reason he came to Dubai. Two reasons, actually. One is the upcoming world track championship, and by extension the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this summer. Dubai is one of a small handful of road events Wiggins is using as fitness boosters throughout the season. That blue and red t-shirt with his last name emblazoned across its chest denotes the second. There are seven young Team Wiggins riders who are most definitely here to race, to prove themselves, and to develop their skills. They’re all under 25, most under 23, fresh-faced and motivated. Wiggins is here for them.
“I like coming back in this sort of capacity because there’s not any pressure really. I’m not talking about Tour de Frances or even selection for the Tour de France, it’s quite nice now,” Wiggins said. “Like I said in the press conference yesterday, I’m the only person here who’s probably got no aspirations to actually do anything in the race, which is quite rare really. Everyone’s sort of fighting for contracts. Well, I’m the boss here, I won’t lose my job. I don’t have to worry about that. But at the same time, it’d be nice for a guy like Chris Latham to get up there and mix it with Cav and the likes.”
“It’s an honor, isn’t it,” said Latham, 21, the team’s designated sprinter, who stands well over 6 feet with a physique indicative of his native habitat. He was eighth at an Abu Dhabi Tour stage last fall and is fighting at the front again here in Dubai. On Tuesday, Wiggins took a massive pull to line up the entire squad at the front of a world-class field; it was a bit too early, but the line of eight RAF roundels on the back of the team’s kits was an impressive sight.
“Yesterday, when he was moving me up, he’s just got so much respect in the bunch,” Latham said. “Everyone just moves out of his way. Just like, ‘coming through!’ You can definitely tell.”
Team Wiggins was created as a development program and is directed by former British Cycling coach Simon Cope. It carries over many of the sponsors of Wiggins’ old Sky program, including Rapha, Pinarello, Jaguar, and Sky itself. By promising to occasionally ride for the team in competition, Wiggins leverages his considerable star power into both race entries (beyond Dubai, the team will race major international events like the Amgen Tour of California and Tour of Britain) and sponsorship dollars.
It’s a team that is at the same time tied and definitively distinct from the British Cycling program, and operates at both a different level and with a different attitude from Team Sky. Many of its riders also compete for the national program, particularly on the track. Its top riders, like Andrew Tennant and Tour of Britain points competition winner Owain Doull, are shooting to ride for the British pursuit squad in Rio right alongside their mentor. Team Wiggins is more amenable to competing road and track schedules than most road-only development squads.
“It’s quite a relaxed team, really, even all the staff,” Wiggins said. “They’re all kind of ex-BC [British Cycling] rejects. We picked them for a reason: To create that atmosphere. They’re basically all my mates, really, that I wanted to give a job to. It’s nice; it’s a nice environment to be in. It’s a lot different to the previous one I was in, which is obviously about results and about winning big races. This is more of a brand team that’s trying to facilitate the track program.”
Wiggins said he wants his team to be the premier development program in the UK, a British version of Axel Merckx’s highly successful Axeon – Hagens Berman U23 program in the U.S.
The younger riders clearly enjoy the extra attention their namesake brings, and they are receiving quick lessons in celebrity protocol. A large crowd slowly grows around the team’s paddock each morning in Dubai, which is home to a large British expat population, in expectation of Wiggins’ arrival.
Asked if he feels more like a father or a boss, Wiggins quipped, “Well, it’s my name on the jersey.” But his riders say that out of the spotlight, he feels just like one of them.
“I’d say he’s more one of the lads, to be honest, more than one of the bosses,” Latham said. “We have a laugh, he’s quite funny.”
Liam Holohan, who is in his first race with the team in Dubai, agreed.
“He’s just one of the guys, he’s a good laugh. Just a normal bloke,” Holohan said. “He’s always got advice, he’s one of the older guys. He’s done a lot more racing at this level than most of us. So he always chips in with a bit of advice. At the meeting at night, Simon Cope, our DS, is giving the talk and Brad will chip in with a bit of advice here or there.”
Wiggins, always a man of few public words, seems to prefer leading by example. He’ll guide his riders through the field, sometimes pull them up into position, they say. Here in Dubai, Latham has one of the biggest motors in the sport as a domestique.
“He doesn’t really say much, maybe ‘get on.’ It’s better just to do it. You can’t really talk, can’t really say many words, going flat out to the finish, can’t really have a conversation,” Latham said.
The team benefits Wiggins, of course. It’s good for his brand, to be seen giving back, and it allows him to pop in and out of fitness-building road racing as he pleases and on his terms. While compatriots like Mark Cavendish attempt to balance tight road and track schedules, Wiggins is very much on his own program.
But the notoriously dedicated Brit doesn’t really need these road races, and he certainly doesn’t need to win them. It’s the satisfaction of riding for his young teammates that brought him to this desert.
“I just think that cycling’s changing all the time. The sport is so different now to 10 years ago, 12 years ago, and they couldn’t be getting into it at a better time,” Wiggins said. “Just by being in a race like this, with some of the names that are here, that’s a great experience for them. Some of the guys are only 19, when do they have the opportunity to mix it with these guys? If I can just help them in some way that’s my goal more than anything for this week.”