4 May 2013

Giro d’Italia: a new challenge for Sir Bradley Wiggins

Want to know what someone really thinks?  Body language is everything.  Consider the tilt of their shoulders – and tone of voice.

I’ve come to read Bradley Wiggins a little better over the last few years – his by turns acerbic and witty demeanour, his sense of humour, his foibles.

Don’t be offended, for example, if he refuses to shake hands. It’s just one way he’s absorbed British cycling’s performance culture to the nth degree. He pursues success to the tiniest of detail. Hands, of course, carry germs. Germs that might scupper his meticulously planned training regime. A training regime defined by a handy aphorism known as “aggregating marginal gains”.

And by Jove has this strategy worked. No Brit has won more Olympic medals than “le Gentleman”, as he is known in France. A nation that by and large grew fond of him last summer as he became the first Brit to win the world’s most important bike race.

Apparently tickled by his regular use of expletives and frequently earthy repartee. Indeed, on the podium under the Champs Elysees last July, Wiggins signed off urging the crowd to “have a safe journey home, and don’t get too drunk”.

He’s a funny guy. Not easily cowed. Who by and large delivers what he says he will. Who’s not used to having to persuade people that he really does mean business.

And so I took note when his habitually boilerplate mien seemed just a little cracked earlier this week. Almost imperceptibly. He revealed the slightest of need to persuade. As he spoke about his next challenge – the Giro d’Italia, the Italian equivalent of the Tour de France – Wiggins leaned forward in his seat, his timbre raised a distinct half an octave.

“I CAN climb! I CAN!” he said. “I just want to prove to people that winning Le Tour WASN’T a fluke”.  It was the eyes that had it. “Please, believe me – just watch me try,” they implored. But the Giro is a very different beast to le Tour.

It’s unpredictable and very difficult to control. The weather can soar above 30 in the spring Calabrian sun, but then endure snow and ice come the Alps. It is raced across the cusp of seasons, through some of the gnarliest and most precipitous terrain in Europe.

Compare it to last year’s Tour. In Grand Tour terms the 2,500 miles were as flat as the tread on Sir Chris Hoy’s track bike. And Sir Bradley Wiggins, Britain’s first ever Tour de France winner, it has been said by many, was gifted his historic victory by a course designed to put him at the front. Including a short sharp prologue and two reasonably straightforward 40km time trials.

The time trial. Where Wiggins comes into his own. The solo race against the clock, historically a very British affair. A once rebel discipline introduced because across Blighty at the close of the 19th century, massed bike races were verboten.

Perhaps a fitting allegorical footnote to Wiggins – an athlete who’s never quite done things by convention. In the end, the cycling authorities had to welcome the renegade time trialists into their fold. The gruelling solo endeavour wasn’t going away, and heck, having been prevented from proper stage racing for decades, the Brits had become pretty darn good at it. Time trialling had become what you might call “a scene”.

Fast forward to last summer. The soon to be “Sir” Bradley Wiggins brought home the 2012 Olympic time trial gold medal but a short week after collecting the 2012 maillot jaune for keeps. The time trial is to Wiggins what fishing trawlers are to Eric Cantona.

But while the French welcomed Wiggins, his sidechops, and those peculiarly British ways, conquering Italy may be a much more tempestuous challenge. The first, last and only English-speaking rider to win the Giro – Irishman Steven Roche – nearly caused a civil war when he feuded with an Italian team-mate.

The Italians have a strong home favourite in the Giro this year – Vincenzo Nibali, who came third behind Wiggins in the Tour. And Nibali is what Wiggins is not – a natural born climber. Unless, of course, I’ve got Wiggins all wrong.

Because maybe the way he fixed me a gaze this week meant something else. Maybe it was just the eye of the tiger. Because Wiggins has of course got very little to prove. Except to himself. With all the brouhaha over who’s going to be team leader for le Tour – Wiggins or team-mate Froome – something has been a little overlooked.

For some time the tacit assumption has been that Wiggins was aiming for the Giro because he knew he wasn’t going to be allowed to defend his title in France. What you might call “team orders”. But the decision to target the Giro – he assured me – was his and his alone.

“It came from you?” I asked him. “It came from me,” he confirmed.  It was he who had to persuade the team high-ups – Sir Dave Brailsford in particular. The reason why? “It would have been easy,” he explained, “to focus on the Tour again.”

But what he really wanted after last year was a new challenge. Something different. Something to motivate the man who has already won pretty much everything.Something that would push him well out of his comfort zone. If such a thing exists for an elite cyclist – a world where a 200km training ride might be considered an easy day out.

And that challenge was a race Sir Bradley Wiggins hasn’t managed to yet win.  The Giro d’Italia. It starts this weekend.

Follow @nzerem_c4 on Twitter.