BRADLEY Wiggins has a large shed in his garden, where he spends long hours training on a stationary bike. Admittedly, it is to sheds what Windsor Castle is to houses, and inside is a cycling shrine, the walls covered with memorabilia. But pride of place is a signed shirt belonging to Robert Millar.
When the Giro d’Italia starts next week in Naples, to begin its three-week tour of the country, Wiggins will try to go one better than his hero. At the 1987 Giro Millar finished second to the Irishman Stephen Roche. The little Glaswegian also won a stage and was crowned King of the Mountains but, since then, from a British perspective, the Giro has provided Mark Cavendish with stage wins, but little else.
It is, for several reasons, a bold undertaking by Wiggins. As reigning Tour de France champion, he would be expected to make his defence of that crown the priority. But, contrary as ever, Wiggins says his main aim is the Giro.
It is also bold because, for someone of Wiggins’ abilities, the Giro is arguably more difficult to win than the Tour. The climbs tend to be shorter and steeper and, as a rouleur rather than a puncheur or specialist climber, Wiggins prefers long and steady. And there are a lot of climbs – seven summit finishes and a mountain time trial.
Then there is the unique atmosphere and ambience of the Giro. While the Tour has an an international flavour, the Giro belongs to the tifosi – the fanatical fans – and is as Italian as Silvio Berlusconi. Of the 95 Giri held so far, Italians have won 67 times.
It has changed a bit since Millar finished on the podium, but certain elements remain. It can still be gloriously unpredictable, even anarchic, as Roche’s victory illustrated.
He controversially took on his team-mate and defending champion, Roberto Visentini, which went down about as well in Italy as would a visit by Lance Armstrong to this year’s Tour de France. The tifosi jeered and spat at Roche, who enlisted the help of Millar, even though he was on a rival team.
On the climbs, Millar and Roche’s domestique, Eddy Schepers – the only team-mate loyal to Roche rather than Visentini – flanked the Irishman like bodyguards, which effectively is what they were. There is a famous picture of Roche alongside Millar on the podium in the maglia rosa (pink jersey) of winner, holding a finger to his lips to silence the boos.
Wiggins knows all about intra-team rivalry after his issues with Chris Froome at last year’s Tour de France. But the rapid progress of Froome, and Wiggins’ vague promise to help him win this year’s Tour, perhaps offers another, more pragmatic explanation for his decision to focus on the Giro, since it could avoid any awkwardness the defending champion might feel in returning to the Tour in a supporting role.
Or perhaps not, because Wiggins maintains that the plan is to win the Giro and then take on the Tour. To win himself or ride for Froome? While Froome insisted again this week that he is “100 per cent” Team Sky’s leader for the Tour, Wiggins cannot quite bring himself to say with the same certainty that he will be there to help Froome.
In other words, he is keeping his options open.
There is no doubt, however, that Wiggins, who, like all cycling romantics, holds the Giro in special regard, is motivated by his Italian adventure. He says the idea came to him “a few days” after last year’s Olympics. “I said to my wife, ‘I’d love to have a go at winning Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Italy.’ Obviously everyone else has got an opinion of what you should be doing and assumes that you’ll go straight back and try to win the second Tour because other riders have set that precedent.
“It was never really about that for me. There was so much emphasis on winning one. My concern was, am I going to have the same desire to put as much in throughout the winter months to do the same target? In Olympic cycles, you have four years to think about [what to do next], to get the burning desire back. They have six months off to do the rounds, do all the TV shows, go on a holiday.
“But you haven’t got that time in cycling. So I had to make a decision very quickly. The Giro was there, and I thought – let’s do it next year.”
He spoke to his coach, Tim Kerrison, who liked the idea. Then he said: “Why not do both the Giro and the Tour?” When Wiggins last tried that, in 2010, it went so “horribly wrong that I was always frightened of that.” Kerrison responded: “But we weren’t training then like we are now.”
“The question was,” continued Wiggins, “if I do the Giro to the full, am I going to be competitive at the Tour and do a job? I don’t want to be there falling out the back like [2011 winner] Cadel [Evans] was. Initially I thought, I won’t do the Tour, I’ll give the space to someone else. But Tim was adamant that, as long as we do the right things post-Giro, there’s no reason you can’t be even better at the Tour than at the Giro.”
Before then, the Giro will command Wiggins’ full attention – it will have to if he is to have any chance of winning. His team is weighted with climbers, including the Colombians Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao, and his main opponent seems likely to be the rider who finished third in last year’s Tour, Vincenzo Nibali. It is Nibali, an Italian, who appears to be in better form than Wiggins, who started last year’s Tour with so much momentum after three stage-race victories.
This year has been completely different. Wiggins has been so low key as to be almost invisible, barely racing and certainly not with the winning habit he acquired in 2012.
At 33, there is always the suspicion that a run of bad form marks the onset of permanent decline. But those close to Wiggins insist his “numbers” are the same as last year. Whether that’s true or a spot of bluffing, the 21 stages of the Giro, from Serra San Bruno in the south to the fearsome Tre Cime di Laveredo in the north, plus an excursion into France for a summit finish on the Col du Galibier, will not lie.