Bradley Wiggins has said he see sees the "human side" to Lance Armstrong, arguing that the American has been "singled out" for his transgressions. Speaking on British radio station TalkSport, the 2012 Tour de France champion insisted Armstrong is an iconic figure in cycling - if not an icon - who will always be his inspiration for taking up the sport.
Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times between 1999 and 2005 but was stripped of his titles when he admitted to doping at the start of 2013, at which point Wiggins was the reigning Tour de France champion. At the time, Wiggins described Armstrong as a "lying bastard" when he denied he'd doped on his comeback in 2009 and 2010, having beaten Wiggins to the final spot of the 2009 Tour de France podium.
Now, Wiggins has written a book, entitled 'Icons', and one of the chapters is devoted to Armstrong, some of whose old racing jerseys he still has at his home as part of a huge collection of cycling memorabilia.
"When I was 13 and I was living on a council state in London, he won the world title in Oslo when he was 21 years of age, and I was enthralled by it. I went out on my bike the next day and I thought I was Lance Armstrong. I went as far as I could go before I realised I'd better turn round before it got dark. Nobody can ever take that away from me, that feeling of freedom and going out on the bike and being inspired by him," Wiggins said on TalkSport.
"I'm not saying he's an icon. He's iconic, for good and bad reasons now. Whether people like it or not, he's iconic in some way - good or bad. For me, I can't change the way it made me feel when I was 13. It changed my life."
Asked if Armstrong, who is serving a lifetime ban from sport, is still a hero to him, he said: "Hero is a bit strong, from the human side… I still speak to him, I know him as a person - post cycling, post what he's been through."
Wiggins denied he and Armstrong were 'big friends' but acknowledged a "mutual respect in terms of what we've been through, racing against each other".
Asked if Armstrong had apologised to him, he added: "He doesn't need to apologise to me. I don't expect an apology."
Wiggins, who was the subject of a now-closed UK Anti-Doping investigation and Parliamentary hearing over his use of the corticosteroid triamcinolone acetonide under Therapeutic Use Exemptions, has steadily increased his media appearances of late. As well as appearing on the likes of TalkSport, he has a show on Eurosport and says he feels freer to put across his true opinions.
"I see people on telly who just want to please and appease people asking them the questions, and you can get drawn into it. I got drawn into it, and you sit there and end up telling people what they want hear so you can get on with your life and get on with riding your bike," he said.
"I'm not in that position anymore, I say what I think now, I don't have key messages, I don't have an agenda-led cycling team to keep happy, I haven't got a team of PR people around me going 'ooh you don't want to say that because it's going to look bad'. I ain't gotta come out of the bus at the next race and face a line of journalists saying 'you know what you said last week about this - can we just pick up on that?', two minutes before you're about to start a race. So I don't care anymore about that."
Remembering his reaction to Armstrong's Oprah confession, he said he was a robot controlled by Team Sky's PR team - "I couldn't actually use my own brain" - but over the years his feelings towards Armstrong have changed.
"I see it more from the human side now. It is what it is. So much goes on in the world anyway, and there are so many bad things with this that or the other. Lance has paid the price heavily for what he's done. Ok the sport has suffered, but he wasn't alone in that. I think he's been singled out as well," he said.
"I have an opinion on it and not everyone is going to like it, but I've moved on now and I can see the world from a different perspective and it's not just cycling. Yes, cycling has been damaged, but there are a lot of people to blame for that. There's been a lot of corruption in the sport in the past, with the way it's been run."