Ian Herbert: This is cycling's hour of need... so where is Bradley Wiggins?
Bradley Wiggins has not gone looking for the limelight just lately.
He gave up waiting and slipped quietly out the back door of the Manchester Velodrome last month when the Manchester City manager, Roberto Mancini, was late for a meeting with Dave Brailsford which provided some valuable national media profile for British Cycling. There was no great incentive to stay, Wiggins might say, because he is a Liverpool fan, but he and Mancini together would have certainly been a much-needed feelgood story for cycling. If ever Wiggins' sport needed its most famous athlete out there, at the vanguard, then it is now, as its reputation becomes more shredded and tattered with each passing day, and as Team Sky seek to demonstrate to an increasingly sceptical audience that they are a clean team, providing cycling with a brand new start.
Forgive the general public for not forgetting how they were asked to swallow precisely the same message in 1999 when, after the caravan raids and syringe stashes of the Festina crisis had reduced the 1998 Tour de France to a sham, the sport provided glittery packaging as it remarketed the following year's race as the "Tour of Renewal" with a custom-built saviour for this happy new beginning, called Lance Armstrong. It needs no one less than the most famous man in the sport to convince us that things will be different this time.
The problem is that Wiggins has never been much interested in the media scene. He never returned your call when he said he would in the days before sideburn masks became de rigueur and you didn't get the sense that spending an evening in the company of cloying strangers was his idea of fun when the release of the Usada report which upended cycling, earlier this month, coincided with a congratulatory soirée dedicated to Team Sky's success, to which Wiggins had signed up. To date, we really have only one snatched interview with him on the Usada report, for BBC Radio 5 Live, which is hardly the work of a talisman, positioning Team Sky on the moral high ground where they want to be.
The word from within his sport is that, after the Tour de France and the Olympics, Wiggins simply felt shot at and in need of a recharge. But the combined challenges of Col de la Madeleine, Col de la Croix de Fer and the Peyragudes pale in comparison with the task Brailsford has on his hands in demonstrating his team's probity now. The performance director is doing what he can to assuage any niggling doubts that Team Sky – set up on a prospectus about clean cycling – really is what he says it is, top to bottom. All 80 of its staff, we have been told, are being interviewed, primarily by Brailsford and GB psychiatrist Mike Peters, and then being asked to sign an agreement to say they have not been involved in doping. Except, as the former UCI doping adviser Dr Michael Ashenden asked at the weekend, how do we tell that the statements are worth the paper they're written on? If Sean Yates, who worked with Armstrong on the Motorola and Astana teams and is photographed arm-in-arm with "Motoman", Armstrong's alleged drugs mule, on photographs washing around the internet, signs Brailsford's statement, then is that the end of the matter? And what about the Australian Michael Rogers, a key member of Sky's 2012 Tour-winning team, who worked with disgraced doctor Michele Ferrari and is named in Levi Leipheimer's testimony about Ferrari's Tenerife training camps?
There is no evidence that either Yates or Rogers has doped but persuading the world that an athlete can be taken at his word, in this of all sports, will be as difficult as retaining clear blue sky between the unravelling storm and Brailsford's team. The extraordinary revelations in the weekend's Mail on Sunday that a former rider who has signed Brailsford's statement has been the subject of doping allegations by no fewer than three independent sources, all of whom worked with him, suggests that a bumpy road lies ahead.
All of which is why Wiggins needs to give Brailsford a bit more acuity now than he did in that eye-watering attack this summer on the "bone-idle" Twitter "w*****s" who suggested he might not be clean and for whom it is "easy... to sit under a pseudonym on Twitter and write that sort of s**t, rather than get off their arses in their own lives and apply themselves and work hard at something".
A little more diplomacy is certainly guaranteed for the next few weeks ahead, when we shall see Wiggins stepping back into the limelight to promote the new autobiography, My Time, which he has written with William Fotheringham and which has attracted a big-money serialisation buy-up. But we need more from him than the light biographical narrative and the happy sense of how he has got from there to here. Wiggins sometimes puts himself out there in unconventional ways and over Christmas we will hear him on the BBC Radio 6 airwaves, in conversation with his friend Paul Weller, talking music and playing some of their favourite classic tracks. We need much more than easy listening, now.
And, before all that, we have the launch event tomorrow of the 2013 Tour de France, when Wiggins will be on hand to discuss a route expected to include a double climb of Alpe d'Huez, three days before the finish in Paris, and a Mont Ventoux stage. Precisely 14 years on from the launch of the Renewal Tour, also expect plenty of promises about clean cycling and fresh starts. But we've been here before. It will take a lot more than a 30-minute press conference to rebuild cycling from the sorry wreck to which it has been reduced. Where are you Bradley Wiggins? Your sport needs you.