Bradley Wiggins is a household name, but when the filmmakers behind Bradley Wiggins – A Year In Yellow started out on the project the cyclist was considerably less famous, despite being a multiple Olympic medal winner on the track and finishing fourth (since upgraded to third) in the Tour de France.
A year later and with the first ever Tour de France win by a British rider and an Olympic time trial gold medal under his belt, Wiggins has cemented his place in sporting history. The film of his year captures the training and preamble to the big wins and is a revealing insight into the idiosyncratic and enigmatic nature of the champion cyclist.
John Dower, the film’s director, had already made sports docs Thriller in Manila and Once in a Lifetime: the Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos, about the eponymous US soccer team. But it was his 2003 music doc Live Forever: The Rise and Fall of Brit Pop that won him approval with Wiggins who is an ardent music fan.
Dower says he had wanted to make a cycling film, but was keen to make something that reached beyond the cycling community. “People got track cycling after the Olympics in Beijing, but not really the Tour de France. Two or three years ago I made a Hovis advert with Victoria Pendleton and her manager also looked after Mark Cavendish and said why don’t you do a film about him, but I wasn’t sure he would sustain a whole film. But I was interested in Bradley and thought he was an intriguing character.”
It was good fortune then that Wiggins’ management approached Andrew Mackenzie, group creative director at UK producer and distributor Twofour about making a film of the cyclist. As a commissioner at Channel 4 Mackenzie had ordered and exec-produced Dower’s Thriller in Manila and duly brought him in to direct the Wiggins film.
Wiggins, meanwhile, was not initially enthusiastic. “Bradley is a funny one, as you see in the film,” Dower says. “He didn’t like the idea of someone following him around with a camera, but at the same time he knows the history of his sport and was keen to have a record of his year.
“I think it’s a good thing if there is a bit of resistance and it ultimately means you get a better film, it means you have to fight to get under the skin of the person. Bradley is very difficult to get and he just disappears and turns his phone off, but when you do get hold of him, he brilliant because he is very candid. A lot of sports people aren’t like that or don’t have interesting things to say whereas Brad does.”
The £250,000 project was fully funded by Sky, which aired it on its Sky Atlantic channel. Given that Sky paid for the film and it is about the cycling team that it sponsors, it would have been natural to expect it to exert some control over the final cut. However, that wasn’t the case.
“I was completely left to make the film that I wanted to make, which was bloody refreshing,” Dower says. “There is some frustration that Sky Atlantic is not a huge channel and we did have offers to give the film a limited theatrical release, but Sky did not want to do that and at the end of the day they were the ones that put their money behind it.”
Wiggins oft-repeated line that “Kids from Kilburn don’t win the Tour de France” features in the film and underlines how important his background is to his story and that forms an integral part of the film. it tells Wiggins’ life story and the cyclist talks frankly on camera about the death, in 2008, of his estranged father in an interview segment that Wiggins put off a couple of times.
The cyclist let the filmmakers into his home and on training rides and also allowed his family to be involved, which was, Dower says, crucial: “I gained his trust and that of his wife Kath and she is in many ways the gatekeeper, she manages the madness around him. It then took me a while to persuade her to be on film, it was a big thing for the whole family.”
As well as Wiggins and his family, the film features a cast of supporting characters including charismatic Sky Pro Cycling head coach Shane Sutton and team principal Dave Brailsford.
Unlike sporting retrospectives, the producers of Bradley Wiggins – A Year In Yellow did not know that he would go on to do what no other British rider has and win the Tour. Wiggins, has since the summer been hospitalised after being hit by a car and a serious crash before the big race would have put paid to the film. Once Wiggins had made the Tour, however, the film was always going to get finished although the producers did have contingency plans, for example interviewing other Sky team riders about what it is like to crash out of a major event.
In the event the race could not have made for better filmmaking with Wiggins in the leader’s Yellow Jersey from Stage 7 and ultimately topping podium in Paris. He won the Olympic time trial nine days later.
A potential banana skin surfaced as the film progressed, that ITV, which had the UK rights to cover the Tour, restricted other broadcaster’s to showing three minutes of archive coverage from the event. ITV’s director of sport Niall Sloane waived the restriction for the Twofour film and Dower says that Wiggins himself was prepared to ask for that favour from ITV had permission not been forthcoming.
Not known for holding back, Wiggins initial reaction to the film was not positive.
“He said ‘I don’t like anything, don’t you think I look like a twat?’, when I first showed it to him,” says Dower. “A lot of the cycling stuff was cut out to his annoyance. But he has come around and he loves it now.”
A lot of the cycling and training footage will be put in as extras on the DVD version of the film.
The film is being sold internationally by Twofour’s fledgling distribution unit, Twofour Rights.
The show: Bradley Wiggins – A Year In Yellow
The producer: Twofour Productions
The distributor: Twofour Rights
Airing: Sky Atlantic
Concept: Feature documentary following Bradley Wiggins over his Tour de France and Olympic gold medal-winning year