In his first public appearance since breaking a leg on The Jump, TV celebrity, occasional downhill skier and former cyclist Sir Bradley Wiggins has distanced himself from the hand that fed him by slamming the cult of marginal gains espoused by his old Team Sky boss, Sir David Brailsford.
Speaking at a JLA motivational breakfast event for corporate types in the City of London on Friday, the 2012 Tour de France champion and five-time Olympic gold medallist said marginal gains were “a load of rubbish” and labelled his former Team GB colleague Victoria Pendleton “a bit of a milkshake”.
At a time when Dave Brailsford’s ailing PR machine seems intent on aggregating marginal losses following a raft of scandals, the man at the centre of Sky’s apparent abuse of the TUE system took to the stage to distance himself from the team’s general manager and former performance director of British Cycling.
When asked by host Sarah-Jane Mee – the Sky News presenter whose limelight-seeking penchants for witty asides and pally rib-tickling should see her write her surname in triplicate – about his understanding of marginal gains, the bearded Wiggins was unequivocal.
“I think it’s a load of rubbish, if I’m honest. I do,” Wiggins, sharply dressed in a dark grey suit and a white shirt, said – much to the amusement of the 300-strong audience. “A lot of people made a lot of money out of it and David Brailsford used it constantly as his calling card. But I always thought it was a load of rubbish.
“It’s a bit like the whole chimp thing,” Wiggins added, referring to the life work of the British psychiatrist Steve Peters, Team Sky’s former head of medicine and author of management gospel ‘The Chimp Paradox’. He added:
” At the end of the day, chimp theories and marginal gains and all these buzz words – a lot of the time, I just think you have got to get the fundamentals right: go ride your bike, put the work in, and you’re either good or you’re not good. Sometimes in life or in sport, whatever, you’re either good at something or you’re not. That’s what makes you a better athlete: your physical ability and whether you’ve trained enough – not whether you’ve slept on a certain pillow or mattress.”
Reminded by Mee that he indeed was reported to have used a special mattress during his 2012 Tour victory, a game Wiggins was equally dismissive.
“Yeah, but that was just the sprinkles on the top. Underneath it all was this dedication and this sacrifice and something mentally instilled in you from a young age that made you do what you did as a teenager and made you go out in the rain and all that stuff.”
Now hitting his stride, Wiggins – who appeared on stage after a screening of his latest Skoda advert, and who mentioned his home London borough of Kilburn on just nine occasions throughout the 50-minute session – added: “In some ways it’s almost a bit disrespectful for these people to come along and say, ‘Yeah, it’s because we made him sleep on this certain pillow, or he drunk this certain drink before this race’.
” So I think that marginal gains are more for other people maybe to justify their jobs. I think it’s true. Fundamentals – talent, hard work and dedication – are more important. Because that 5% on top – that’s not going to make you win the bike race if you don’t have the other 95% underneath.”
Now milking the Middle Aged Men In Suits audience for easy dress-down-Friday laughs, Wiggins – with his trademark combination of self-deprecation and arrogance – boasted: “Me? I can sleep anywhere – even the floor here – and go on and win the Olympic gold the next day.
” I didn’t really matter to me. I think you get too wrapped up in all these things – this is what’s important, this is what’s going to make the difference – when actually I think you need to look at the broader picture, make sure everything else is right. The same with the whole chimp theory – that there’s a chimp living inside you. It never struck a chord with me. The people it struck a chord with are those who made fortunes selling it and telling you it’s the best thing since microwaves.”
When reminded that such a man – Professor Peters himself – worked very closely, and to much acclaim, with the likes of Victoria Pendleton and irascible snooker hotshot Ronnie O’Sullivan, Wiggins couldn’t resist caving in to the demon on his shoulders.
“But Victoria Pendleton said that without this chimp theory she couldn’t have won all her medals,” said Mee (Me Me), teeing things up for Bradley.
“But Vicky’s a bit of a milkshake anyway,” came the response, which had the (largely male) audience in raptures.
Perhaps keep to shift the focus away from Peters – previously dubbed “the man behind the medals” by British media – Wiggins concluded: “You can overanalyse things but at the end of the day it’s about your ability and whether you’re a better athlete than the other person or not. Whether you’ve come to grips with this other person living inside you, it’s all a bit… well, each to his own. That may work with some people, but as Roy Keane would say: it’s utter nonsense.”
Over the course of the event, Wiggins – who only mentioned his former Tesco shelf-stacking friends from Kilburn on three occasions, and his pals “on the fag counter at Waitrose” just the once – was on rambunctious form, eliciting more laughs from the crowd than a whole series of Live at the Apollo. Highlights included:
Mee: How did your mum cope?
Wiggins: She loved it. I mean, it worked out all right for her. She got a new fridge…
Mee: Did you get her a Skoda?
Wiggins: Nah, I wouldn’t put her in a Skoda.
Wiggins: You go and work at KFC and you know you’re going to serve chicken.
Mee: Or not…
Mee: Are you going to miss cycling now you’ve retired?
Wiggins: No. As much as I love cycling, it’s come full circle and I hate the thing now. I haven’t been on the bike since the Six Days of Gent back in November. I needed a complete break from it. I’ve taken up another sport which I’m doing just as a follow-up at the moment…
Mee: What sport’s that?
Wiggins: I can’t tell you. But that’s kept me busy. I don’t want to get fat. I’m paying a coach £90 a month to give me a monthly training plan.
Mee: Any regrets?
Wiggins: No, it all happened for me. I’ve been ticking boxes for the last four or five years. I can retire completely content. I’ve got five Olympic Gold medals. I haven’t got four. I mean, five sounds better. I’ve got no demons.
The London Olympics were phenomenal. I remember telling [rugby player and A Question Of Sport captain] Matt Dawson – who was famous for wearing gloves in the rugby World Cup final – that it’s never going to get any better than this. And Dave Brailsford was behind me and he said [putting on accent] ‘Don’t just say that, Bradley…’ But this was it, my definitive moment in sport.
And when it came to choosing between the Jam or Paul Weller, Wiggins refused to give an answer: “One comes from the other. You wouldn’t have sliced bread without a loaf of bread.”
At one point, towards the end of the Q&A, Wiggins even accused the host of yawning. Stressing that it was merely a “sharp intake of breath,” Mee quickly moved on to “one final question, because we’re running out of time…” to which Wiggins – bang on cue – breezily added: “… because we’re all getting tired, eh?”
Laughing it off, Mee said: “Look, I’ve had a busy week and me and you, we talk quite a lot and I’ve heard it all before.”
Which is quite apt because, to be fair to Bradley, we’ve all heard it before really, haven’t we? We know his story and his shtick. We know about Kilburn and shelf-stacking in Tesco and how easy it was to break the Hour Record because he had already done it in training.
But what we still don’t know is what was in the mystery package.
Of course, there were no probing questions at an event which was meant to be celebratory and straight-down-the-line. Presumably it was understood: no awkward questions about jiffy bags, prescription drugs, needles or asthma. And can you blame him? This was hardly the forum for such questions. It wasn’t, after all, a probing House of Commons anti-doping committee to which Wiggins was inexplicably never invited.
And in his defence, Wiggo did at least have the mirth to allude to the turbulent events of the last few months that have dogged Team Sky and questioned his own legacy.
“Cycling has become cool now,” Wiggins said during an anecdote about riding with a bunch of youngsters from Hackney, “or it had done in the last couple of years before British Cycling and the Death Star went into meltdown the last few months.”
Cue laughs from the crowd and a smile from Mee, who clearly knew that she couldn’t pounce on this for fear of a walk-out. Later, when she asked Wiggins whether or not he’d be happy if his son was to try his hand at following in his footsteps and becoming a cyclist, Wiggins said: “The way things are going at the moment – no.”
Instead, Wiggins felt much more comfortable looking forward, not backwards, and discussing his next moves – which, besides taking up a new mystery sport, involves more “self-indulgent” TV work. Starting this weekend with an appearance on Soccer AM alongside the band Kasabian where chances of a jiffy bag own-goal are minimal.