In doing so, British crowd favorites — former Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins and his partner Mark Cavendish — had to settle for second place in the London Six Day event Sunday as Kenny de Ketele and Moreno de Pauw came first.
In recent weeks the 36-year-old Wiggins has come under intense media scrutiny over his use of therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) for the anti-inflammatory drug triamcinolone.
Wiggins had previously said he would retire from professional cycling after the indoor velodrome races in the British capital and Ghent in Belgium next month, though he teased the London crowd that he could be considering a comeback in 2017.
“I’ve enjoyed it that much, I just don’t know at the moment. I still love riding my bike, I love racing,” said Wiggins. “Who wouldn’t want to come back, with a week like this and the crowds like? It’s been incredible.”
If any of the capacity crowd which packed the venue used for the 2012 London Olympics had any misgivings about his use of TUEs it was hard to imagine, as Wiggins’ every pedal stroke was greeted with rapturous acclaim.
It reached a fever pitch as Wiggins crossed the line first in the final Derny race Sunday to put his team in a strong position to claim victory in the grueling event.
But in the closing one-hour Madison race, the defending London champions, De Ketele and De Pauw, came out on top as they gained a late lap on the field, Wiggins and Cavendish making a hash of a handsling change at a crucial time.
Wiggins was given three TUEs exemptions to use the substance triamcinolone to treat allergies and asthma before the Tour de France in 2011 and 2012, the latter race his most famous victory, and the 2013 Giro d’Italia.
The exemptions were granted by the UCI, world cycling’s governing body and there is no suggestion Wiggins broke any rules.
But concerns have been raised that the use had been kept secret until a group of Russian hackers — the Fancy Bears — leaked confidential data from the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) database.
Other top athletes, including star American gymnast Simone Biles and tennis players Serena and Venus Williams, also fell victim to the leaks, but again all had permission to use banned drugs to treat existing medical conditions.
“It’s been very sensationalized in parts and very personal in other parts. Straight off, the way cycling is today, yes, yes. Because it doesn’t take much in cycling now because of what’s gone before. So I understand that.”
Wiggins was unavailable to the media during his farewell to British cycling, but found support among riders and officials throughout an emotional week.
De Ketele, a 31-year-old who specializes in Six-Day and indoor track events, told CNN that Wiggins was “one of his idols.”
He went on: “As I understand it there is nothing wrong going on — he has brought so many things and is doing so much for Six Day cycling.”
Cavendish, who took Madison gold at the World Track Championships in London with Wiggins before taking four stages of this year’s Tour de France, was also reticent to speak about his long time teammate.
But he told CNN Friday that the reception both of them had received from the crowd was an indication of the strength of support.
“It’s brilliant and so nice that people are here to watch us in the velodrome where we won the the world championships,” said Cavendish. “We’d love to win again but there are a lot of strong teams here.”
Cavendish’s prediction proved prophetic as De Ketele and De Pauw would just not be beaten, the latter outsprinting him in the final dash for the line and bonus points.
“We have won the world championships twice and it’s not very often we make a mistake. They were strong all week. They are the best Six Day riders in the world,” he told Eurosport.
Wiggins, who has kept a low profile since claiming a record eighth Olympic medal for a British competitor as part of the triumphant team pursuit squad in Rio, certainly played his part in attracting the crowds to the Lea Valley Velodrome in East London.
Despite the controversy, organizers Madison Sports were committed to their star attraction.
“We knew from the outset we were delighted to have Brad involved,” CEO Mark Darbon told CNN. “We always knew he would get an incredible reception and that is what has happened.”
A similar sell-out is expected in Ghent in two weeks time, the Belgian city where Wiggins was born, and where his father, himself a notable professional cyclist, raced in Six Day events.
“The earliest memories I’ve had as a kid were sat in the cabin with my dad,” Wiggins has said.
It will also give Wiggins and Cavendish the chance to gain revenge on De Ketele and De Pauw in their home Six-Day event.