When Bradley Wiggins rolls down the start-ramp at the Giro D'Italia tomorrow, he will start the ride towards what could well be the defining decision of his career.
For the Giro, Italy's three-week equivalent of the Tour de France, is the point at which the road-cycling calendar gets serious. It is a major competition in its own right. But it also comes before the Tour de France, an event at which Wiggins last year became the joint-most successful Briton ever, finishing fourth.
This year, according to the evidence seen so far, Wiggins is in great shape. Hence the Londoner's dilemma: if all goes well, does he throw caution to the winds and go for broke in the Tour of Italy, or should he ease back midway through, and wait for the Tour de France?
Wiggins' official answer is that he will ease back, because 2010 is all about the Tour. But at the same time, the 30-year-old knows the Giro could become almost as tempting a prize.
"Given the choice of which one you'd want to win, you'd put the Tour a bit higher but the Giro's a huge race," he says. "But I don't want to make the mistake of being at my best form and getting carried away in the Giro and then being knackered at the Tour. A lot of guys tried that last year, and fell short in July."
"I have to keep reminding myself that the Giro is like a mini-dress rehearsal for the Tour de France. So I don't want to have a crack at the GC [general classification] in the Giro. But I may find myself in a position where I can do it."
That's a fairly ambiguous mission statement, particularly when it's reinforced by Wiggins pointing out his pre-Giro race condition could hardly be better.
"With all the data we've gathered, it's like I've been signed off. It's not like I can suddenly go off on holiday to Mallorca, but it's reassuring. Everything's OK."
Given his form is so good, the inevitable interest in the Giro as Wiggins' first three-week stage race since that groundbreaking fourth place in last year's Tour is steadily edging higher. The same goes for Wiggins' team, Sky. Tomorrow will be only the fourth time that a British team has started one of cycling's top three stage races – the Tours of Spain, France and Italy – and the first since 2000. Ending that decade-long drought makes it an honour for Wiggins to be Sky's leader, but produces more pressure too.
All of this prompts the question why Wiggins would want to race in Italy at all and raise the heat on his back unnecessarily, rather than waiting until July and the Tour? However he has strong reasons. The first is, predictably, that racing the Giro last year worked perfectly for Wiggins as a way of solidifying the foundations of the physical condition he needed for the Tour, so he wants to do the same this year. Much more intriguing is that the Tour of Italy will be Wiggins' dry run for July.
"The last two weeks before the Giro will be almost identical to how I tackle things before the Tour," Wiggins says. "Plus the prologue stages are both similar style and length, they're both held in the Netherlands this year" – the Giro starts in Amsterdam, the Tour in Rotterdam – "and the first two full stages are nearly identical in style, being flat and windy, and in length.
"That first week will be full on, to try and get the leader's jersey as I would in the Tour. But then after eight or nine days, there'll come a point, like last year's Giro, where I'll just shut off and ease back," rather than going so far into the red that he could risk finishing exhausted, jeopardising his chances in the Tour.
However, if Wiggins is in the top echelons of the Giro at that point, as is possible, that plan will change, and radically.
"If I'm in the pink [of the leader's jersey] or close to it, then I won't do that [ease back], out of respect for the race," he says. In other words, Wiggins' Giro will go from being a dress rehearsal to being something much more like the real thing, a fight for the overall classification, just like in the Tour de France.
On paper, the one physical brake on Wiggins' potential assault on the Tour of Italy is his weight. Rather than being the near-skeletal figure that tackled the 2009 Tour – his former team staff at Garmin joked they knew he was in shape because they could see through his forearms – Wiggins will hit the Giro a kilo and a half heavier than he should be.
"I've done that on purpose because that way I'll stay healthy, and it almost restricts me," he recognises. "I found at last year's Tour that even a small amount of weight makes a huge difference."
However, even if Wiggins does "shut off" midway through the Tour of Italy, he will have gained some much-needed experience. As he puts it, "I've only been in this three-week stage racing business, battling for the overall [victory], for less than a year. I could go to week-long races like Alberto Contador, and then just ease back like he does rather than get stuck in to prove myself by getting a result. But I don't yet have the confidence to do that."
Finally, Wiggins will be at the Giro to avoid family distractions. Clearly a very devoted father – how many other sports stars out there are willing to Twitter, as he did on Monday, "my [two-year-old] daughter has just had a crap, so I'm off to wipe her backside"? – he knows that riding the Tour of Italy lets him concentrate 100 per cent on racing.
"The Giro is a working environment, and that kind of workload is impossible to replicate at home. At the Giro, if you're tired you've still got to get up and get on."
"There's no choice It's a month out of your life, it's not ideal, but it's the sacrifice you make."
One thing he will not be doing, though, is comparing his results with other top riders at the Giro who are also Tour de France-bound, like world champion Cadel Evans.
"I try to avoid getting sucked into 'this is where I should or shouldn't be, how are the other guys going' game," he insists. "I've even stopped reading the specialist press, because I was getting so worked up about it all and was taking the criticisms so personally, but I've realised that what you don't know can't hurt you.
"I have to remember that a year ago I'd never have imagined even doing these races at this level. So I'm just focusing 100 per cent on myself."
However, the media interest could come blasting down on Wiggins as soon as tomorrow, where a victory in the prologue would see Wiggins follow in Mark Cavendish's wheel-tracks and become the second Briton in as many years to wear the Giro's pink leader's jersey.
An early win would also be fresh fodder for speculation, too, that Wiggins could go all out for victory. And given the stakes are so high both in this month's Tour of Italy and in July's Tour de France, deciding which way to play it will be no easy choice.
Bradley Wiggins: The Statistics
4th Wiggins's position in last year's Tour de France, riding with Garmin-Slipstream
6 Olympic medals - three Golds, one Silver and two Bronze
Finished 71st in last year's Giro d'Italia - his highest placingReuse content