PARIS — It was an occasion to smile, but Bradley Wiggins walked through a hotel lobby in Toulouse, France, on Friday morning with pursed lips and steely eyes. Though the final mountain stage of the Tour de France had ended the night before — and Wiggins, with a substantial lead on Vincenzo Nibali, was in all likelihood the race winner — he was not ready to let his guard down.
Sunday, he could finally drop the businesslike facade. Before riding into Paris as the first British champion of the Tour de France, Wiggins sat on his bike at the start in Rambouillet, southwest of Paris, joking with other riders. It was the culmination of a strong and measured performance in this three-week, 2,173-mile race.
Wiggins, 32, controlled the Tour from the end of the first week on with the help of his teammates on the talented Team Sky squad, most notably the fellow Briton Christopher Froome, a Kenyan-born 27-year-old who finished second overall. Froome, along with third-place Vincenzo Nibali, an Italian with Liquigas-Cannondale, also stood atop the podium on the Champs-Elysees Sunday. But it was Wiggins who was the most elated.
"Going back as a child, watching the Tour on telly from the age of 10, 11, 12, all through the (Miguel) Indurain years, dreaming that one day you would win the Tour," he said. "But you never really think it's possible. What chance does a kid growing up in central London ever have to win the Tour?"
Britain has been a force in track cycling, the discipline in which Wiggins started his racing career and won multiple Olympic medals. But it has historically struggled on the road, particularly at the Tour.
The first British rider to wear the yellow jersey was Tom Simpson, who died while climbing Mont Ventoux during a stage of the 1967 Tour.
Though Barry Hoban and Robert Millar found success in the 1970s and '80s, respectively, the sport was hardly popular among Britons or any other English speakers.
"My first Tour in '84, not one person from start to finish cheered for me," said Allan Peiper, an Australian who rode with Millar and is now a sport director for Garmin-Sharp. "The Tour was not like it is now. We were a band of 10 foreigners riding in a mostly European or French race."
The Tour's popularity has steadily increased across the Channel since. The Union Jack was a staple along the racecourse this year, from the narrow, windy roads of Belgium to the hot and sunny Pyrenees.