Olympic gold medal and Tour de France winner’s growing celebrity status sparks growth in UK bike sales and popularity
Bradley Wiggins is not known for his showbiz ambitions. After making sporting history for the second time in as many weeks, he insisted to journalists: “I’m not a celebrity. I will never be a celebrity and I don’t consider myself a celebrity.” Unfortunately for him, however, the 24 hours that followed his time trial victory would imply the opposite. Call him what you like – Wiggo, Le Gentleman, the fastest mod on two wheels – the man with the deadpan manner and luxuriant sideburns has been given the most intense and enthusiastic star treatment Britain has to offer.
First on Wednesday afternoon – minutes after slouching on the winner’s gold throne with his jersey unzipped like one of his louche singer idols from the 1970s – Wiggins was ferried off for the first of many interviews, during which he charmed with his laid-back attitude towards becoming Team GB’s biggest Olympic medal winner of all time. (It was great, he said, but he still didn’t have as many golds as Steve Redgrave.)
Once the microphones were out of his face, it was time to unwind, and the 32-year-old posted photographs on himself on Twitter celebrating with friends. “Getting wasted at St Pauls,” he wrote, alongside one showing him grinning on the rooftop bar of the Grange Hotel in the City of London. His final message came just after midnight and read: “Well what a day, blind drunk at the minute and overwhelmed with all the messages, Thank you everyone it’s been emotional X”. It was retweeted 4,652 times.
Also that evening, MPs called for him to be knighted, “modfather” Paul Weller gave Wiggins a shoutout during a gig, and his local council in Chorley announced it would be offering him the freedom of the borough. Just an ordinary night, then, for an ordinary bloke. And it wasn’t over yet.
By the time he woke up on Thursday morning, Wiggins found to his chagrin that remarks he made in favour of mandatory helmet-wearing for cyclists had blown up into a headline-grabbing row, and that his lithe silhouette had been emblazoned onto a special batch of gold stamps by the Royal Mail. Gold medal-winning rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning have also been featured on the one-off stamps. But only Wiggins had a postbox – in Chorley – painted gold on his behalf.
Hailed ubiquitously as a national hero and sporting great, Wiggins is also considered by many in the cycling community as something of a saviour, or at least an inspiration. A sport that remains somewhat marginal in Britain in comparison with some of its more bike-mad European neighbours is hoping the so-called “Wiggo effect” will help it capitalise on growing grassroots popularity.
“Hopefully a lot more people will come in and start cycling. I think they will,” said Ben Wiggins, assistant manager of a Cycle Surgery store in London. Although no relation, he did work as a masseur for Team Sky last year.
If the statistics are to be believed, Wiggins’s high-profile success in the Tour de France has already translated into renewed enthusiasm for cycling. According to figures just released by Visa, card spending on bikes and associated products this week was up 7.3% increase on the same period last year. Cyclescheme, the provider of bikes for the government’s cycle-to-work scheme, saw a spike in sign-ups in the week following the Tour’s final stage, while sales of the post-Tour edition of Cycling Weekly were up 60% year on year – the magazine’s biggest single issue sale for about 20 years. What’s more, Surrey has said it is thinking about bidding to host a stage of the French event in its green and pleasant pastures.
In perhaps the clearest indication of a knock-on “Wiggo effect’, British Cycling, the national governing body for cycle racing, has had its best ever month for membership growth, adding more than 2,400 new members in July – over 1,000 of whom signed up after 22 July, when Wiggins arrived at the Champs Elysées in yellow. “Membership has been growing really strong since [the Beijing Olympics of 2008], but we’ve just had our biggest month of membership sales,” said Terry Greenwood, membership and club services manager. “We are a 53-year-old organisation but the last 10 days since Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France have been the 10 busiest days in our history. So we’re delighted.”
Greenwood insists that this sudden bike mania is no flash in the pan. But the cycling community knows Britain has a long way to go before it can boast of grassroots cycling credentials to rival that of France or Holland. Gordon Seabright, chief executive of the national cycling charity CTC, said it was “absolutely the case that we are seeing more cyclists out and about” – thanks partly to Wiggins and also, he said, to other cyclists such as Chris Froome and Lizzie Armitstead. Now, he said, the pressure was on to ensure the enthusiasm is not squandered. “It is immensely exciting and also a big responsibility for all of us working in cycling to capture this opportunity to press the government to do more and more to make cycling safer,” said Seabright. “What we’d like to see is the government have a genuine vision of cycling which turns us into a country where it’s the natural way to get around.”
In the Cycle Surgery store where Ben Wiggins works, business has been busier than usual. More people have been coming in and mentioning not only Wiggins’s name but also his brand of bike – Pinarello. Peter Thomas, a 28-year-old management consultant who had come in on Thursday to browse for a hybrid, said his desire to ride was motivated by a new, shorter commute but also by watching Wiggins’s glory on television. “I really admire the fact that he sticks to his own morals and way of life, and he’s not shy to show who he actually is in front of the cameras, which is impressive. And he’s very down-to-earth,” he said.
Seabright says he is hugely confident that, whatever happens with Wiggins, his galvanising effect on the British public will not wane. “Many people who are trying riding for the first time, they’re not doing it to race,” he said. “The great thing is cycling’s just fun. It gives you a sense of joy and freedom, and I think a huge proportion of those who are taking it up for the first time are just going to fall in love with it.”