Stage wins the target at Italian Grand Tour - but Giro also a chance to try options for London 2012

Team Sky has announced its nine-man squad for the 2012 Giro d’Italia which starts in Denmark a week tomorrow, targeting stage wins and the team time trial. Five of those riders, including world champion Mark Cavendish, will be returning to the country where their careers began at the British Cycling’s Olympic Academy, in Quarrata, Tuscany.

Stage 11, which finishes at Montecatini Terme in the same province of Pistoia where that quintet were groomed for future success is likely to evoke particular memories of those days for them. All five of those British riders in the squad have ridden the Giro before.

Geraint Thomas, now aged 25, did so with Barloworld in 2008, while 24-year-olds Ben Swift and Ian Stannard took part the following year with, respectively, Katusha and ISD-Neri. Peter Kennaugh, at 22 the youngest member of the line-up announced today, raced in last year’s Giro for Team Sky itself.

For the 26-year-old Cavendish, who still has a home in Quarrata, it will be the fourth time he has taken part in the Giro, a race in which he has twice worn the maglia rosa, amassing seven individual stage wins and two in the team time trial with his former HTC-Highroad team.

Juan Antonio Flecha, aged 34, who will act as road captain, and 31-year-old Bernie Eisel, will be the elder statesmen of the squad, and both have ridden strongly during the Spring Classics.

Meanwhile the young Columbian pairing of Rigoberto Urán and Sergio Henao, respectively aged 25 and 24, will be looking to challenge in the mountains.

Cavendish, having taken some time out earlier this month for the birth of his daughter Delilah, is currently getting some racing in with what is turning out to be a rather striking edition of the Tour de Romandie for Team  Sky – the world champion setting the third fastest time in a short Prologue won by Thomas and today towing the peloton up a hill, Bradley Wiggins winning a sprint finish in Stage 1 to take over the race lead from his team mate.

Looking ahead to the year’s opening Grand Tour, which runs from 5-27 May, Cavendish said: “The Giro is one of my favourite races of the season and I’m very happy to be riding it,” he explained.

“We’ve got a good squad to go and win stages. Geraint, Pete and Swifty have just come off the track so they should have that explosive power which will be important in the first week, and the rest of the team have all done well in the Classics.

“We want to win the team time trial as well and hopefully that will get us the pink jersey. If we could achieve that it would be a massive honour for the team.

“It should be a really good three weeks because we’re all friends and have a good understanding on the road. The Tour de Romandie has allowed me to get some miles in the legs so come the start in Denmark I’ll be raring to go.”

Thomas, who earlier this month was part of the British team pursuit squad alongside Kennaugh that set new world records in qualifying and the final to win the world championship will be riding the Italian Grand Tour for the first time since 2008.

“I’m really looking forward to the Giro, especially as I haven’t ridden a great deal on the road this season,” said Thomas, whose last road race prior to this week’s Tour de Romandie was Paris-Nice, where he helped team leader Bradley Wiggins win the overall.

“I took part in the race once before in 2008 and found it to be a lot less stressful than the Tour de France,” he went on. “The atmosphere is fantastic and Italy is a special country to ride in.

“Starting in Denmark should also be interesting and I will be motivated to ride a good prologue,” continued Thomas, who earlier this week won that unusually short 3.34km Prologue in the Tour de Romandie.

“Then I’ll be looking to help Cav in the sprints and getting stuck in with the team time trial. The last week looks hard but I can’t wait to get going,” he added.

Thomas acted as leadout man to Cavendish when the latter won the world championship in Copenhagen last year, and is likely to undertake a similar role at least in some stages in the Giro.

However, the Welshman will miss the Tour de France to focus on his preparations for Great Britain’s defence of its Olympic team pursuit title in London this summer. His focus on the track also means he will not be available for the Olympic road race.

As a result, the Giro gives Team Sky – and, by extension, the decision makers within the GB set-up – a chance to try other options ahead of the summer.

Cavendish and Wiggins, who will also ride in the Olympic time trial, are automatic starters in the road race at London.

Should the British Olympic Association, as expected, lose its lifetime ban case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport – a decision is due next week – and David Millar be persuaded to make himself available, that leaves two spaces in the five-man team.

Stannard, on the back of a strong performance during the Spring Classics, appears to have a strong claim to one of those berths, and was a member of the eight-man team that helped Cavendish win the rainbow jersey in Copenhagen. 

Earlier this week, Swift, who won gold in the scratch race at Melbourne as well as silver medals in the Madison and points race, revealed that he had dropped out of the track squad for London, where he could potentially have ridden the team pursuit or the omnium, to instead help Cavendish’s bid for Olympic gold.

The Giro, then, provides an opportunity to play around with Cavendish’s leadout options for both the Tour and the Olympics, but Swift could have another role to play both in Italy, potentially being the man to target the tougher Stages 11 and 13, as well as at London 2012 where he could be the man to try and get into a breakaway to give Great Britain another option besides Cavendish in the road race.

“The Giro will always be a special race for me because it was the first Grand Tour I rode back in 2009 and I lived in Italy whilst on the British Academy,” said Swift of his inclusion in the Team Sky squad for the race.

“I’ve always had a good relationship with the Italian fans too and they are very knowledgeable and passionate about cycling.

“My main job will be helping Cav but if an opportunity arises for a stage win myself I'll definitely try and take it, whether that's in a sprint or from a breakaway.

“It's going to be a great experience starting in Denmark and there should be plenty of chances for Team Sky to show what we can do,” he added.

Team Sky sports director Steven de Jongh said: “We have a very strong squad here which we feel can be competitive on several fronts. In Mark Cavendish we have the fastest sprinter in the world and he will be looking to get some stage wins under his belt as quickly as possible.

“The team time trial is another big target of ours and we’ll definitely be looking to show what we can do there as well.

“Once the race hits the mountains Rigoberto and Sergio will become our focus and if Rigo can continue the good form he showed over the spring then he is more than capable of achieving a high placing in the General Classification.”

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.