Right now, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy can do no wrong. They’ve been on the front pages of every British newspaper for consecutive days and getting live TV audiences of more than 6 million Brits for their latest gold-medal-winning exploits at the Olympic Games. And that’s on top of Hoy getting a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II after his unprecedented (for a cyclist and a Brit) triple-gold performance in Beijing, and just days after Wiggo became the first Brit to win the Tour de France. So the question has to be asked: Are these two men, respectively, the very best road and track cyclists our sport has seen? Not just the best in Britain, but the best in the world?
Let’s look at Hoy first. At age 36, this burly Scot from Edinburgh has been winning track medals at worlds and Olympics for the past 14 years. That’s consistency! His original specialty was the one-kilometer time trial, an event that demands a combination of sprinting speed (to start), power (to race at more than 60 kilometers an hour), and stamina (to sustain that effort for four laps of the track). Hoy won the world kilo title four times and the Olympic title once, set the fastest recorded kilo at sea level (1:00.711). And in 2007, in the thin air of La Paz, Bolivia, he recorded two of the only three sub-one-minute times ever recorded, but fell five-thousandths of a second short of the 58.875-second world record set earlier by Frenchman Arnaud Tournant at the same high-altitude velodrome.
When the UCI eliminated the kilo from Olympic competition before the 2008 Games, Hoy turned to the match sprint and the Keirin. The great Scot had to modify his training regimen considerably to focus on his final 200-meter kick rather than an effort five times longer. It was a bit like a middle-distance runner converting to the 100-meter dash. Amazingly, Hoy succeeded. Since 2007, he has won four world Keirin titles and one sprint, besides taking gold in both events at the Beijing Olympics.
But the bulk of Hoy’s Olympic and world titles have come in the team sprint—the event in which he took his fifth Olympic gold on Thursday night and later described as “by far…my greatest win.” He led his Great Britain teammates Philip Hindes and Jason Kenny to a stunning world record of 42.600 seconds for the three-lap, 750-meter race. That improved the mark the three Brits had set in qualifying by 0.147 seconds, and a massive 0.314 seconds faster than the previous record set by Germany last December. The new record represents an average speed of 63.380 kph (almost 40 mph!), and that’s from a standing start. Hoy’s team-sprint career record now shows two Olympic golds (and a silver) and two world titles (along with six silver medals and four bronze).
One track racer who came close to matching Hoy’s feats was Frenchman Tournant, also a kilo specialist who converted to the sprint. Tournant, who’s now a coach, won only one Olympic gold (the team sprint, in 2000); he also took nine world titles in that collective event, along with four world kilo championships and one sprint title (in 2001). Besides being more prolific overall, Hoy has bragging rights over Tournant: The Scot beat the Frenchman in the 2004 Olympic kilometer time trial when both were at their peak in that event, and at the Beijing Games, Tournant was on the losing side to Hoy’s GB squad in the team sprint. So Hoy comes out well ahead of the Frenchman.
Before the current era, two men that most resembled Hoy—and both were present at the London velodrome on Thursday—were France’s Florian Rousseau and Japan’s Koichi Nakano. Rousseau won separate Olympic golds in the kilo, Keirin and team sprint, and at track worlds he won the kilo twice, the match sprint three times and the team sprint five times. As for Nakano, he raced for most of the year on the Japanese Keirin circuit (where on-course betting revenue is the source of the riders’ salaries), but he focused on just one event at the annual world championships, the professional match sprint, which he won for a record 10 consecutive years, 1977-86, a decade before pro cyclists had access to the Olympics. No doubt, if allowed, Nakano would have added a few Olympic golds to his collection.
There were many fine sprinters in earlier decades, but three who showed the most versatility, a little bit like Hoy, were Daniel Morelon of France, Danny Clark of Australia and Patrick Sercu of Belgium. They all raced before the team sprint became world championship events, but Morelon’s record of seven world match sprint titles and two Olympic golds, along with world and Olympic titles in the tandem sprint, indicated that he would have been just as successful in today’s sprint events.
As for Clark and Sercu, their careers both began with Olympic medals in the kilometer time trial before they turned professional, with Clark going on to win world titles in the Keirin and Sercu in match sprinting, before they became the world’s two most successful six-day racers (88 victories for Sercu, 74 for Clark). Today, with sponsorship from Team Sky, Hoy and his British track colleagues don’t have to race outside their comfort zone of UCI World Cups, world championships and Olympics, while French sprinters such as Tournant and Rousseau had similar backing from the Cofidis team.
Hoy, at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, and Wiggins, at 6-foot-3 and 158 pounds, have very different body types, but they do have much in common. They both were original members of the National Lottery-sponsored British Cycling track program, dating from the 2000 Olympic Games. They’re both household names in the UK—and later this year Wiggins is likely to earn his country’s most-coveted sports award, BBC Sports Personality of the Year, just as Hoy did after Beijing. And just as Hoy converted from one track discipline to another, so Wiggins has successfully adapted from a track pursuit and road prologue specialist to the world’s best stage racer and time trialist.
He has shot to No. 1 in the world rankings by winning Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie, Critérium du Dauphiné and Tour de France along with seven 2012 time-trial victories—including this past Wednesday’s 44-kilometer Olympic TT in his hometown. His only true rival in London was reigning world champion Tony Martin of Germany, who led Wiggins by five seconds at the first check point (after 7.3 kilometers) before the Great Briton got into his stride.
Interestingly, Wiggins gained the most of his time on Martin (and the rest of the field) on the hardest section of the course, between the first and second check points, which was mostly against a 10-mph head wind. Wiggins covered this 11.1-kilometer stretch at 45.030 kph, by far the slowest part of his race, but gained 21 seconds on Martin at almost 2 seconds per kilometer. On the next 11.5-kilometer section, which included favorable winds after making a turn onto the iconic Portsmouth Road (a legendary time-trial and road-record course), Wiggins averaged an amazing 58.227 kph, gaining 1 second per kilometer on Martin.
The enormous popularity of Wiggins and his teammate Chris Froome, who took a brilliant bronze medal, was emphasized by the size of the crowds who lined both sides of the entire course. “I expected today to be like a stage of the Tour de France,” Froome said, “but this was something very different…the [fans] weren’t just cheering, they were screaming our names. I don’t think I’ll ever experience it again.” His words were echoed by Wiggins, who said this about the fans: “You would have to be deaf not to hear them…I was most aware of it coming around the roundabout in Kingston [at the end of the Portsmouth Road]—the noise was incredible. I’m never, ever going to experience anything like that again in my sporting career.”
What’s so unusual about Wiggins’s career is how relatively late he transitioned from being a brilliant track racer to the best in stage racing. In one of his many understatements, Wiggins said Wednesday, “It’s nice to be a good all-rounder,” before adding, “I am really proud of the versatility I have shown, to have won another Olympic medal in another event. I have medals in the Madison, the team pursuit, the individual pursuit. I’ve even won the Ghent Six-Day.”
Others have performed well on the track besides conducting great road careers. Fausto Coppi broke the world hour record and twice won the world pro pursuit title in the 1940s. Jacques Anquetil also broke the world hour record, won a couple of six days and was his national pursuit champ. And Eddy Merckx won 17 six-day races besides shattering the world hour record. But in the four decades since Merckx retired, the only Grand Tour winners to also break the hour record were Francesco Moser, Tony Rominger and Miguel Induráin—but they were never track specialists like Wiggins.
Two things that Wiggins has yet to achieve in his career are breaking the world hour record (that must be on his agenda) and winning a single-day classic. Of the greatest Tour champions, Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx and Bernard Hinault all won major classics; Induráin won his country’s Clasica San Sebastian; and Lance Armstrong won the same Spanish classic before taking La Flèche Wallonne. So what classic could Wiggo win? Paris-Roubaix maybe….
But let’s leave it there, for now. When Wiggins was asked what comes next, he said earlier this week, “You have to keep improving and keep on your game or someone else surpasses you.” He said he intends to defend his Olympic time trial title in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, but before then he clearly has his eyes set on another Tour de France, or two…and perhaps a classic and the hour record. That would truly put him up there with the greatest cyclists of all time.
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