Bradley Wiggins’s tragic fall from Olympic hero to broke couch-surfer

Wiggins in the winner's throne after the men's cycling time trial at Hampton Court Palace as part of the 2012 London Olympic Games
Wiggins in the winner's throne after the men's cycling time trial at Hampton Court Palace as part of the 2012 London Olympic Games - Getty

In the heady summer of 2012, Sir Bradley Wiggins was at the height of his fame. Already a successful cyclist with six Olympic medals under his belt, he became a household name as the first Briton to win the Tour de France. He was chosen to strike the bell to open the London Olympics in front of an audience of millions, was named Sports Personality of the Year that December, and soon after was knighted for his services to cycling. The public called him “Sir Wiggo”; the Sun newspaper issued a stick-on version of his signature sideburns.

Wiggins celebrating winning the 2012 Tour de France
Wiggins celebrating winning the 2012 Tour de France - Getty

Twelve years on, he has experienced a tragic fall from grace. Last week, Wiggins was declared bankrupt at Lancaster county court, following reports that his company had accumulated debts amounting to almost £1 million. The home he shared with his ex-wife has been repossessed and sold and he is reportedly sofa-surfing.

“It’s a total mess… He has lost absolutely everything. His family home, his home in Majorca, his savings and investments. He doesn’t have a penny. It’s a very sad state of affairs,” the Olympian’s lawyer Alan Sellers told the Daily Mail this weekend. “I don’t know where he stayed last night, I don’t know where he will stay tonight or tomorrow night. He doesn’t have an address.”

It is a desperately sad situation, especially given he has had the cards stacked against him from the start. Wiggins had an immensely troubled childhood, raised by his mother on an estate in Kilburn, north London, after his Australian father, also a champion cyclist, who drank heavily, walked out when he was two. He alleges that his stepfather was violent (a claim denied by his stepfather).

He took up cycling aged 12, inspired by Chris Boardman’s success at the 1992 Olympics. The sport was a respite, until it wasn’t. In 2022, he revealed he had been sexually abused aged 13 by his 72-year-old coach. “I was such a loner. I just wanted to get out of the environment. I became so insular. I was quite a strange teenager in many ways and I think the drive on the bike stemmed from adversity,” he said.

“No one realised quite the extent of the trauma. Even during his career, he was very up and down,” says Telegraph senior sports correspondent Tom Cary, who has interviewed Wiggins several times over the course of his career. “He is very charismatic but also quite wayward, you felt he could go off the rails. Quite a lot of his humour and laddishness, the whole mod thing, it’s a sort of screen.”

Wiggins admitted as much himself in an interview last year, saying his roguish appearance was “a veil. I was catapulted to fame… But I’m an introvert. I was adopting the coolest persona I could [as] a defence mechanism. A distraction. I was hiding.”

However, it was this persona that catapulted Wiggins to national treasure status when he won the Tour de France in 2012. “He could not give a bad interview if he tried – he just talks and says what’s on his mind,” says Cary. There were none of the robotic answers sportsmen tend to give when asked about their success. Wiggins was refreshingly outspoken, with an off-beat sense of humour that quickly endeared him to the public.

“No other British cyclist has ever had a year like that,” says Adam Becket of the magazine Cycling Weekly, who has covered Wiggins’s races over the years. “He’s an immensely good cyclist and athlete – a phenomenon in that sense – but in terms of his cut-through with the public, cycling is quite a niche sport, and he had that kind of popularity because his personality shone through.”

Wiggins, who took up cycling aged 12, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2013
Wiggins, who took up cycling aged 12, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2013 - PA

Wiggins won four world titles and eight Olympic medals over the course of his career, becoming the third-most decorated British Olympian in history and, at one point, the highest-earning Briton in sport. The Tour de France win alone made him wealthy enough that he once said he would never need to work again, if he was “careful”.

At Rio 2016 the cyclist was spotted sticking his tongue out during the national anthem
At Rio 2016 the cyclist was spotted sticking his tongue out during the national anthem

However, he struggled with the pressures of fame and professional cycling, was prone to depression and drank heavily. Publicly, he kept it together until 2016, when the wheels appeared to fall off. After the Rio Olympics that year, Wiggins’s medical records were leaked by Russian hackers, and he was heavily criticised for having injections of triamcinolone – a drug that helps cyclists lose weight without losing power – before big grand tours, even though he did so having obtained a therapeutic use exemption certificate.

He retired in December that year whilst subject to an anti-doping investigation. A parliamentary report later concluded that Team Sky abused the system to allow Wiggins to take the drugs before the Tour de France. He has always maintained his innocence, insisting he used the drugs to treat chronic asthma and allergies and not to obtain an unfair advantage over his rivals.

There was worse to come. In 2020, Wiggins divorced Cath, his wife of 16 years and mother of his two eldest children. The stress of the anti-doping probe had pushed their relationship to the brink, with Wiggins previously alleging that Cath was treated in rehab for the stress. Soon after, he began a relationship with PR executive Laura Hartshorne. The couple had a child but have since separated.

He suffered, as so many ex-professionals do, with feeling lost in retirement. Wiggins tried and failed to settle on something purposeful to do: in 2021 he said he was studying to be a doctor, and has also tried rowing, boxing, and training to be a social worker. In that same interview he said he hadn’t ridden a bike in five years. He did some work as a pundit and commentator, but the smear of his anti-doping investigation never really disappeared. He reportedly no longer has an agent.

The final straw is the well-publicised financial difficulties he has encountered in recent years. His company Wiggins Rights Limited entered voluntary liquidation in 2020, with creditors including HM ­Revenue & Customs, who were owed over £300,000. In November last year, there were reports that Wiggins was facing bankruptcy over unpaid debts totalling nearly £1 million. Now he has been declared bankrupt, trustees will be appointed to seize and dispose of his assets, which could include Olympic medals and ­trophies.

“There will always be bits of me that I dislike, and they’re the self-destructive bits. My proneness to self-sabotaging myself,” he said last year. Bankruptcy is yet another hurdle. Hopefully, having overcome so much hardship, it is one Wiggins can handle.