FOLSOM, Calif. – Six months ago, Sir Bradley Wiggins quietly grew a beard to outwit fans used to spotting him by his signature sideburns.
But there is nothing like an ocean to help distance the crush of fame.
As the 2012 Tour de France champion and four-time Olympic gold medalist prepared for the Amgen Tour of California, Wiggins has relished his ability to casually stroll into a nearby Whole Foods Market and eat his lunch almost entirely undisturbed – an impossible concept for the knighted Brit back home in London.
And there have been explanations to locals that no, the "Sky" on his jersey does not mean he partakes in skydiving.
"I keep saying, we're the bike team," said Wiggins with a wry grin.
Anonymity is not the objective as Wiggins and his Sky Team take their most serious swipe at this country's most prestigious multi-stage race, now is in its ninth year.
The 720-mile, eight-stage tour from Sacramento to Los Angeles (technically Thousand Oaks, Calif.) kicks off Sunday and tests riders on some of the Golden State's most iconic freeways, mountain peaks and coastlines.
"The Tour of California was always a big goal," Wiggins told USA Today Sports during at the team's hotel base in this small city located in the Sierra Nevada foothills. "In the last six years it's gained so much curiosity, especially back in Europe," he added, referring to his only other appearance in 2008 when the race was contested in February. "As one of the biggest races in the world, guys tend to chose this now over the Giro d' Italia, which is quite something really."
In a way, Wiggins on the comeback trail. The 34-year-old struggled to cope with his phenomenal 2012, when he became the first man from Britain to win the Tour de France and less than two weeks later nabbed his fourth Olympic gold medal in the time trial on home soil in London. No cyclist had ever won both in the same year.
The ensuing attention sapped his focus and eroded his motivation.
"Someone asked me three weeks after winning the tour when does the preparation start for next year," he said. "That's when it suddenly hit me. God, I've got to do this again. From that moment I think I knew I wasn't ready to go through the winter I'd done the year before."
Five months later the Lance Armstrong scandal broke open wide following the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's "Reasoned Decision" report, which detailed the American's sophisticated, widespread doping. It left a sport already scandalized by performance enhancing drugs under new scrutiny.
Wiggins received his fair share.
"I was current champion of the Tour de France when that all exploded," says Wiggins. "I was like a rabbit in the headlights. I just felt like, 'What do I say to that?' It was tough. I don't mind admitting it."
The fallout affected his family. He was forced to move his two children to a different school after persistent hassling from fellow students.
Demoralized, Wiggins suffered a disappointing 2013.
He was injured and withdrew from the Giro d'Italia and then skipped his defense at the Tour de France, which was won by Sky teammate Chris Froome.
Wiggins now says missing the Tour de France was the "best thing that happened to me last season" because it allowed him to "go back to the drawing board and establish clear goals."
His fall was strong, including a second-place finish in the time trail at the World Championships.
Reinvigorated, Wiggins says his legs are stronger than ever and he still has the motivation to win multi-stage races. And he has cleared the cobwebs from his clouded mind.
"I needed it then," he says of his obsession to win the Tour de France. "I had to do it. It was at the sacrifice of everything else in my life. I don't need it anymore, but I want to do it. That's the difference now."
"This could be a redemption year for him," says Tour of California Race Director Jim Birrell.
So far in 2014, Wiggins is on his way to achieving his goals, which include participating in the cobbled Paris-Roubaix (he finished ninth), returning to the Tour de France in support of Froome and capturing a World Championship gold medal in the time trial.
Rio is also on his mind.
"That's my goal long term," said seven-time Olympic medal winner Wiggins of the 2016 Olympics. "I'd love to try and get a fifth gold medal."
The immediate task is to perform well in California. Absent is last year's winner, Tejay van Garderen of the USA, who is focusing on the Tour de France.
But there are plenty of worthy rivals, Grand Tour stage winners and Olympic medalists, among them Omega Pharma's Tom Boonen and Mark Cavendish, Cannodale Pro Cycling's Peter Sagan and BMC Racing Team's Taylor Phinney.
Injuries and illnesses means Sky Team is a bit of a "mismatch" but Wiggins is confident they can do well if things break their way.
The first three days could shape the race, with a flat opening Sunday in Sacramento that should favor sprinters followed by the time trial – Wiggins specialty – and a challenging third stage with nearly 11,000 feet of elevation gain that finishes atop Mount Diablo on Tuesday.
"We could see three lead changes in first three days," says Birrell.
Wiggins said the course has a "bit of everything" and if he can come out of the time trial with the leader's jersey the team will fall into protective mode.
"That then changes the whole dynamic of the race," he said. "You almost become defensive for the rest of the week."
If all goes well, Wiggins may need to go clean-shaven if he wants to eat his lunch in peace, even in the USA.