Cycling's most reluctant superstar, Bradley Wiggins, with his Tour de France victory and his Olympic title behind him, is just now coming to accept his place in his country's history - one that could earn him the distinguished title of BBC Sports Personality of the Year. After his remarkable year and the fame and public adulation that followed, the Team Sky rider is back on track for the 2013 season.
Speaking to the Daily Telegraph's Paul Hayward, Wiggins admitted that his post-Olympic break included days of public appearances and partying, and that it was his crash with a car in November that snapped him out of the excesses and brought him back to the austere lifestyle necessary to win a Grand Tour. The crash interrupted a string of television appearances and gave him back his motivation to train.
"It was a bit of a blessing in disguise. I thought – right, let’s get back to training now. I had a week off after the accident then I came out here [to Mallorca] for a week’s training. That was it. I just got the hunger back for it. It was a dramatic way to put a stop to it all, but it worked.”
Wiggins has never been comfortable with the attention of the fans and media, even giving the finger to the press as he left the hospital last month, but he explained how the chaos which surrounded the minor incident set him off.
“I was in the hospital with police outside my ward room all night. They said 'whenever you want to go the toilet tell us because the press are walking round the hospital trying to get a snap of you'. I thought, 'this is weird, this isn’t happening. I’ve only had an accident to my ribs'.
“When I got out, the road at the end of our lane was just full of press and paps and that was when I gave the finger salute. They were saying, 'We might not take you home, we might take you to a hotel,’ and I was getting really angry by that point: 'No, I’m going home. I want to go home.’ It felt like such an invasion of privacy. You can’t even have an accident."
Wiggins insists that despite all the attention, he's the same person as he was a year ago, that his achievements don't make him "better than anyone else", and that any one of his teammates could win the Tour.
“It just goes to show that if I can do it anyone can do it with a bit of application and hard work. You don’t have to be Lance Armstrong, you don’t have to be this incredible machine of an athlete. Anyone can do it. Anyone in this set-up can no do it now. If I can do it, with where I came from, then anyone could do it."
Part of the anger he directed at those photographers comes from a desire not to change and to avoid at all costs the life of a celebrity. "People expect you to because you’ve achieved all these things. I don’t feel I should have to. Half the appeal is that people feel they can associate with you. They can understand your story: the bloke next-door sort of thing.
“I can’t stand the word celebrity and I despise everything about it. It’s different from being recognised for being good at something, which I accept in our society, and is nice. I’ve had people coming up to me and saying, 'You changed my life, I got my bike out of the shed and I’ve lost five stone.’ People say that to me. Brilliant. That’s what it’s all about. But if people say I saw you on Big Brother or in the jungle, it’s not something that appeals to me."
But fame hasn't been all bad for Wiggins: following his Olympic gold medal, he said, “All these huge events happened. I went from the Champs-Elysées on the Sunday to ringing the bell in the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday, the road race round Box Hill on the Saturday, winning the time trial on the Wednesday round Hampton Court; then the day after the time trial I was sat in the velodrome next to Stella McCartney drinking Heineken and talking rubbish. I don’t know what I was saying.
“Then the day after that I was at the Stone Roses concert and walked into a room full of all the people I’ve looked up to. Jimmy Page was in there. And they all knew who I was. They all wanted a photo of me. Five weeks ago I’d left home relatively unknown.”
It could be easy for anyone to get carried away by living so large, but after his collision, Wiggins is back to basics and as motivated as ever.
“Four months have passed now and once I started getting back on the bike and out here on the same training roads, doing the same things that got me to there, I started missing it again. And after two months of that whole post-Olympic circus thing — after the 40th hangover — I thought: I’ve definitely had enough of this, of feeling like that. You just want to get back to that routine and structure. I need that in my life."