For three unforgettable weeks, in the glorious summer of 2012, Bradley Wiggins was Britain’s sporting Sun King and his wife Cath was his ever present — though rather reticent — queen.
Those of us who were at Hampton Court Palace when the cyclist won gold in the London Olympics time trial will never forget his touching reaction. After reclining on a golden throne to pose for an obligatory victory photograph, the nation’s new hero hopped straight back on his bike.
‘Where’s Cath? I have to see Cath!’ he shouted frantically to his support team, as he pedalled back through the thronging crowds.
When he finally found her, back at the race’s start line, he enveloped her in his spindly arms and squeezed her like a soldier returning from war.
Those of us who were at Hampton Court Palace when the cyclist won gold in the London Olympics time trial will never forget his touching reaction. After reclining on a golden throne to pose for an obligatory victory photograph (pictured), the nation’s new hero hopped straight back on his bike
A short while later, finding them behind the Palace savouring the moment with their children, Bella and Ben, I suggested to Cath that her husband — who just days earlier had become the first Briton to win the Tour de France — was destined to become a legend.
‘To me, he always has been,’ she replied tersely, in her no-nonsense Lancashire brogue. Then she took Wiggins’ hand, and they stole away from the hoopla for a quiet family celebration — a picture of unity.
So when this week it was revealed that Sir Bradley (he was knighted in the 2013 honours list) had announced — by way of an abrupt tweet — that he and his wife had separated, the news caused a jolt equivalent to a racing-bike hitting a pothole at full-tilt.
As one of the five-time Olympic champion’s former colleagues in the all-conquering Sky cycling team told me: ‘This has come as a complete surprise to me, and I think a lot of people who know Brad and Cath will say the same. I didn’t even know that his marriage was in trouble.’ However, another source who knows the couple admitted there had been problems. ‘Brad and Cath are both volatile and fragile personalities and they have been having blazing rows in public in the past few months. Matters have obviously come to a head. It’s very sad.’
In his autobiography, My Time, Wiggins devoted several pages to his wife, praising her for rescuing him from a ruinously drunken youth, and describing the pivotal role she played in his success.
‘She’s the constant one, the one who’s always there,’ he wrote. ‘She’s seen me through the good times, the bad times, the ups, the downs, the great times. Since we got together, in 2002, we’ve been a team.
‘Cath knows when I am on it, when I am not on it, when I’m skiving, not skiving . . . because I’ve been through all those phases in my life and she knows me better than anyone.
‘She’ll always stand by me and support me. She is the keeper of everything for me because she is the last point of protection. In her eyes I can never do any wrong.’
In his autobiography, My Time, Wiggins devoted several pages to his wife, praising her for rescuing him from a ruinously drunken youth, and describing the pivotal role she played in his success. Pictured: Mr Wiggins and his wife Cath at the Beijing Olympics in 2008
Though Wiggins was still on a high after the triumphant summer of 2012 when he penned that glowing marital testimony, he was still waxing about the joys of family life just seven months ago.
Writing in The Sunday Times, he described how he and Cath had recently moved, with Ben, now 14, and Bella, 12, and their five dogs, into a converted barn ‘in the middle of nowhere’, a secluded and scenic part of Lancashire called the Trough of Bowland.
‘Home is my safe haven and I always look forward to coming back to Cath [and] our children,’ he wrote, saying that, having done work experience in the kitchen at London’s Cumberland Hotel, he loved nothing more than cooking Italian food for the family.
Wiggins also spoke proudly of Cath’s fitness regime, revealing how she trained every day in the gym they had built.
‘I don’t like people in my house. I think, as you get older, you start treasuring your personal space,’ he added.
Sir Bradley Wiggins and his wife Cath, pictured kissing in 2012 at his victory in the Tour de France, last night sadly announced that they are to separate after 16 years of marriage
So what has gone wrong? Certainly, he has not found his post-competitive life easy and, in retrospect, there have been warning signs.
But among seasoned Wiggins-watchers, one theory is that his relationship has failed to withstand allegations that, at the height of his career, he exploited a loophole in cycling’s anti-doping regulations to use a performance-enhancing drug.
He has always vehemently denied this claim — saying he ‘100 per cent did not cheat’ — but it has continued to mar his achievements since his retirement from professional cycling in 2016.
That year, Russian hackers released bombshell documents showing that Wiggins had been given permission to use triamcinolone — a performance-enhancing corticosteroid — before some of his greatest victories, including his historic Tour de France win. A source later told Daily Mail Sport that the Sky team’s doctor had delivered it to him in a Jiffy bag. Wiggins, who has always championed ‘clean’ cycling, strongly denied any impropriety, saying he took the drug purely for asthma and allergy problems (ailments he singularly failed to mention in his autobiography).
Yet in March, 2018, a parliamentary select committee released a damaging report, branding his usage ‘unethical’ and dismissing his claim that he injected it for medical reasons.
A further probe, by UK Anti-Doping, was inconclusive, failing to find sufficient evidence that the notorious Jiffy bag contained a banned substance.
Wiggins has since dismissed the entire episode as ‘a malicious witch-hunt’, and spoken of the devastating impact on his wife and children in a shockingly revelatory interview in The Guardian in 2018. ‘You watch your family suffer and it’s terrible,’ he said. ‘It nearly killed my wife. She ended up in rehab over it.
‘I’m at home having to deal with it. Because she’s bipolar she has this fear of shame, people watching her all the time.’
Given her background, his wife’s emotional torment becomes more understandable. A talented former junior racer, Cath’s family have been involved in grassroots cycling for more than 50 years, and her father worked for British Cycling.
In fact, it was the sport that brought them together. They became friendly at 15, when they would enter the same competitions; then, in 2002, when they were in their early 20s, they began a romance. He was the most naturally talented cyclist of his generation — but Wiggins’ life was then spiralling out of control and his chances of fulfilling his potential seemed to be slipping away.
His childhood had been chaotic. His father, Gary, was a hard-drinking and drug-abusing Australian track cyclist who had abandoned his first wife and child — Wiggins’ half-sister Shannon — and moved to Belgium, where the prize-money was at a premium.
While in London, he wooed Wiggins’ mother, Linda, then just 17, and took her back to Ghent, where the champion was born.
But Wiggins Senior was an utter brute. His litany of appalling behaviour included beating Linda and smuggling a cache of amphetamines from Australia to Belgium in Bradley’s nappy. Within two years he had found a new woman, packed his wife and son’s belongings in bin-liners and sent them back to Kilburn, North London, where they lived with Wiggins’ maternal grandparents.
No doubt because of these early traumas, the teenage Wiggins veered off the tracks.
Though he inherited his father’s ‘cycling genes’, he drank heavily — and indeed, he recalls, he was ‘the worse for wear’ in a Manchester bar on the night that he and Cath got together.
During the first few months, their relationship was a trial for Cath, who had been raised in a solid and stable family in Wigan.
While she studied radiography at Manchester University, he would spend all day in the pub with his coach and mentor, the former cyclist Shane Sutton. When he met her, after her lectures finished, he would have downed seven or eight pints; and after they had spent a couple of hours together, he often went back to drink more.
With admirable devotion and patience, however, she helped to rescue him from his demons; and following their marriage, 16 years ago, he became ever more reliant on her.
With admirable devotion and patience, however, she helped to rescue him from his demons; and following their marriage, 16 years ago, he became ever more reliant on her. Pictured: Sir Bradley Wiggins with his wife Catherine, and children Isabella and Ben who hold his award of a Knighthood
‘The little things she helps me with are as much a part of the big picture as the training and planning I do,’ he said in his book.
When he was racing, he admitted, she would even load his suitcases into the car — to ensure that he did not injure himself.
‘All those things make a difference, and Cath accepts every bit of it without a second thought. Other women might just say, “You can pick that up yourself.” Or they simply wouldn’t put up with their husband being around the house. It’s teamwork, and she is happy for me to do it . . . the biggest sacrifice was being away for weeks, training, and missing the kids’ birthdays. I feel like a terrible father to my children (when) I’m not there for them.
‘I feel like a terrible husband at times because I’m not there to support Cath in the things that are going on in her life.’
Of course, Wiggins wrote this when his star was still ascendant.
When he was the mutton-chopped Mod who made cycling cool for millions of middle-aged men whose unflattering Lycra outfits clung to their chubby bodies like Velcro.
When his popularity was such that he was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2012.
But even then, Cath gave an insight into the difficulties of living with his many moods and eccentricities. In a Sky documentary charting his year of Olympic and Tour de France glory, she was asked how she would describe him and replied tartly: “Well, which Bradley?” She then explained there were two very different sides to him.
‘My husband, he’s brilliant, right. He’s proper good, considerate, patient kind. Really appreciative of me and the family. He’s good. I wish I could have him all the time. But I can’t . . . because then there’s this cyclist and he’s a bit of a t**t.
‘He’s selfish. It’s like he’s a train going through, everything else around him is scattered. Regardless of childbirth, moving house, whether I’m sick or anything.
‘He’s not doing it because he’s cruel or selfish. He’s doing it just because he can’t see that is where he’s going.’
Since his retirement, and those drug allegations, there have been indications that it has become even more difficult to be around Wiggins.
In January this year, after a trip to Disneyland Paris, he was revealed to have filmed a bizarre, expletive-ridden video in which he called Mickey Mouse a ‘c***’ and attacked the behaviour of children who rampaged through the resort while their parents let them ‘run riot’.
A source put the film — in which he also shouted the words ‘paedophiles, paedophiles’ and ‘F*** off. F*** off Disneyland’ — down to his ‘mad sense of humour’.
Now aged 40, he has voiced a curious lack of satisfaction — indeed, an apparent indifference — towards his past achievements. And it can’t have been pleasant for Cath to hear him tell his local newspaper that he hoped to be ‘dead by 60’, adding: ‘I don’t see much point living beyond that.’
Last autumn there was a fresh — and rather endearing — surprise.
He had enrolled for an Open University degree course in social work.
Why? So that he could help young people who had suffered childhoods as grim as his own.
Addressing an audience of 1,500 who attended one of his An Evening With Bradley Wiggins roadshows last year, he also admitted he was seeing a therapist, declaring darkly that life after cycling could be ‘s**t’.
According to one writer who was at the event, watching the angst-ridden Olympian wrestle ‘intensely, awkwardly’ with his identity was a sobering experience. It was more like ‘a two-hour therapy session’ than entertainment, he said.
Wiggins shocked the audience by admitting that he had smashed the Sports Personality of the Year trophy and the medal he received for his knighthood — in front of his children.
He said he wanted to show them that these ‘trinkets’ meant nothing; that he wanted to be valued for the person he is today, not a once-great cyclist.
As if to emphasise this point, he had carried his Olympic medals on to the stage in a Co-op carrier bag. He was, he declared, totally detached from his exploits in the saddle these days.
‘It’s nice to be remembered but I can’t keep waltzing in with a rock’n’roll haircut and a suede suit on, drunk. I’ve moved on from that person. Everything has to end.’
It would seem so. Even his rock-solid marriage. Yet I prefer to remember Bradley and Cath as they were on that balmy summer’s day eight years ago, hugging and kissing as if there was no tomorrow.