With a little over five weeks to go until the Giro d’Italia begins in Naples, Bradley Wiggins says he is in better shape now than he was ahead of his successful assault on the Tour de France last year.
“In training last week in Tenerife, on the climbs, I was ahead of any point last year before the Tour,” revealed Wiggins in an interview with The Times in which he laid out his ambitions to add the maglia rosa to the maillot jaune. “I am on track to give myself the best shot.”
Wiggins has worn the Giro leader’s jersey before, winning the Prologue in Amsterdam during Team Sky’s first participation in the race in 2010, but he would eventually finish a lowly 40th on GC.
That was his first Grand Tour after his surprise fourth place finish in the 2009 Tour de France, riding for Garmin, although the difference now is that while in 2010 he was a potential contender, as Tour de France champion and with a Vuelta podium place secured in 2011, he goes into May's Giro as one of the favourites.
While the Giro organisers have said that part of the reason for including two individual time trials in the route of this year's race was to attract Wiggins to it, he revealed to The Times that there was a time when he had to go out of his way to discover news of the race.
His initiation to it came back when he was a teenager and would head to a newsagent’s in Soho to buy the Gazzetta dello Sport after finishing his Saturday shift in a West End hotel kitchen.
“You had to search for the Giro,” said Wiggins. “I’d find it in the Gazzetta, pages and pages of what was going on at the Giro, just to look at the pictures, plus a strip down one side of the results. When you are 13, that’s the kind of thing you look forward to.
“There were always white backgrounds to every mountain picture. Any pictures I had of Miguel Indurain on my wall always had snow in the background.”
Then, towards the end of the year, he’d get to see the actual racing. “Bromley Video would bring out a video of the race, so I’d watch it while riding on the turbo. That was my introduction.”
Wiggins was asked why he is prioritising the Giro this year, rather than focusing on the defence of his Tour de France title, having made history in Paris as the first British rider to win the race.
“It’s just what I want to do. You’ve got to be so careful that you don’t end up just fulfilling other people’s expectations,” he replied.
“Historically the Giro doesn’t really suit me. It is more of a challenge than the Tour in some ways. I’ve had to come out of my comfort zone a little bit.”
Partly that is due to the particular demands that the tougher climbs encountered in the Giro place on a rider, with Wiggins drawing on the memory of his first participation in the race in 2003.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he recalled. “Every day was a nightmare, every morning they’d knock on my door to wake me up. I hated it.
“Ten years ago I would never have imagined being able to compete in this race,” he went on, adding that his training has focused on making sure he is equipped to deal with the Giro’s specific demands.
“I always said I’d love to get to the end of my career and be remembered as someone who won the Tour and the Giro. The Giro is something else in my eyes. That shows real versatility,” he continued.
In part, his decision to ride the Giro will have been influenced by the amount of time-trialling in the race which plays to one of his real strengths, but it’s also motivated by his ringside experience of watching Cadel Evans Tour de France title defence crumble last year as the Australian struggled with his form and fitness.
“I never want to be like that,” Wiggins maintained. “In hindsight, would he have ever started the Tour last year? I didn’t think it was a great defence of his title. And I’m sure he’d be the first to say so.
“These are my best years. I don’t want to be saying, ‘I had a great year in 2012, I am just going to go with the flow this year’ and miss a year through not being bothered. There was an element of ‘What the hell do I do now?’ after the Olympics last year. The minute I started thinking, ‘I’d like to do well in the Giro,’ I was, ‘OK, I am willing to sacrifice everything.’”
The Times points out the contrast between the romantic idealism of the teenage Wiggins who would run to the shop to buy the Gazzetta, and the much criticised approach taken by Team Sky whose pace-sitting on climbs has led to accusations that they are riding by the numbers and draining the excitement from the sport.
“Yes, we get slagged off a lot for it, especially in recent weeks,” Wiggins acknowledged. “But the reality now is that you have to do it more scientifically to get the best out of you. I realise I am not the most talented bike rider in the world, I am not a great climber, not a great time-triallist, not a great sprinter. I am a jack of all trades.
“I am a fan ultimately, but being a fan and a romantic doesn’t necessarily win you bike races. I am very calculated about what I do. It might not be the most beautiful way of winning bike races, but it’s the way I can do my best.”
While Chris Froome will spearhead Sky’s challenge at the Tour, Wiggins of all people knows that a carefully planned campaign can be brought to a sudden and unexpected halt, having crashed out with a broken collarbone in the opening week of the 2011 race.
It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that during those three weeks in France this summer, he could emerge as Sky’s strongest contender, and he plans to be in the best shape possible for the race.
“It’s not going to be a case of finish the Giro, have a week off, get fat and then think about starting again,” he insists, and when he is reminded that Stephen Roche, winner of both the Tour and Giro in 1987, has said that he too could achieve that, answers simply, “Yes, maybe.”
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.