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Column: Wiggins comes through with the win that all of Britain desperately needed
HAMPTON COURT, England (AP) By the time Bradley Wiggins wheeled his bike to the starting line in front of Hampton Court Palace, his country's national honor was no longer on the line.
A pair of female rowers had taken care of that, giving an increasingly desperate Britain its first gold medal on the fifth day of the Olympics.
Not that it mattered. Wiggins wasn't going to lose the individual cycling time trial if Queen Elizabeth II herself was riding on his handlebars.
She wasn't, though in an Olympics that opened with her shown parachuting out of a helicopter, it certainly wasn't out of the question. What was out of the question was Wiggins blowing the gold and sending his medal-starved country into an even deeper Olympic funk.
He delivered as expected on a rare sun-kissed afternoon in the English countryside, adding an Olympic gold to the Tour de France crown he won a few weeks back. Unfortunately, the royals weren't on hand to watch, having given up the massive palace a few hundred years back in favor of other digs closer to the action in London.
It all seemed to have a royal theme, down to the massively oversized gold chairs that the top three riders sat in when they finished. The only thing lacking was a king's crown for Wiggins, though he might soon be rewarded with a knighthood for his part in rescuing the London Games for the hosts.
"Doesn't quite sound right, does it?" Wiggins said when asked if he would be Sir Bradley. "I don't think I'd ever use it, maybe just put it in a drawer or something."
The new royalty of these games is a red-haired racer who plays guitar, follows the Mod scene, and has sideburns that curl down his face like handlebars. He's also now won the most Olympic medals in British history, cashing in for the seventh time. Those aren't exactly Michael Phelps numbers, but you don't get nearly as many chances in cycling as you do in the pool, and besides, Wiggins only counts the gold (No. 4 in three Olympics, for those keeping score at home).
"There was only one color for me today," he said. "It had to be one color, really."
The British were absolutely gobsmacked last month when he won the Tour de France, something no subject from the kingdom had ever done. Radio stations sponsored sideburn look-a-like contests, there were predictions of thousands of kids taking up cycling, and the queen sent a congratulatory letter.
That thrilled Wiggins' wife, but the free-spirited cyclist was more interested in a tweet sent to him by guitarist Johnny Marr of the Smiths. His comment about the queen can't be written here, but suffice it to say it left an entire country chuckling, except maybe the queen herself.
This victory didn't surprise them at all, but that took nothing away from the thrill of a home team win. Thousands lining the course near the finish cheered wildly as Wiggins whizzed by at nearly 40 mph in some stretches, on his way to a lopsided 42-second win that lacked nothing but drama.
He's used to riding before big crowds in France, but this was different. The screams and cheers were unlike any he had ever heard and any he will ever hear again along the 27 mile-plus course, especially when he took the roundabout about two miles from the finish and headed home.
Wiggins knew it was over when he crossed the line, but one part of his brain couldn't convince the other part. He checked five different times for confirmation and five different times the board told him he was the gold medalist.
After briefly sitting in the royal chair, the 32-year-old Londoner got back on his bike, headed out the gates of the palace and onto the course. His wife was there, but he also wanted to acknowledge the fans who couldn't buy tickets, the throngs that lined the streets hoping he could come through.
He did, in a victory that was important to the morale of a nation that was beginning to wonder if the London Games would someday be ranked among the most colossal of many infamous British athletic failures. On this day, though, Britain finally won gold: Helen Glover and Heather Stanning on the women's pair at the rowing regatta, then Wiggins delivered the one that really mattered most.
As a surprise bonus, teammate Christopher Froome took the bronze, giving the home team its eighth medal overall after starting the day with just four.
"The roads were lined with people not just cheering but screaming our names," Froome said. "It gives me goosebumps just to think about it."
Late in the afternoon, most of that crowd had left the streets. A few police officers waited outside in hopes of getting their pictures taken with their sideburned hero, chatting excitedly about the race and the country's sudden turnaround in the medal table.
High above the palace, the Union Jack waved magestically in the sunlight. It was a day that couldn't have been more perfect, a day that couldn't have been more needed.
Wiggins never got a chance to properly celebrate his Tour de France win because he had to train for the race that will surely define his career for many in Britain. He planned to change that this time with a few vodka and tonics.
A royal ending, indeed, on a day fit for a king.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg