Back in 2009 in the Giro d'Italia, somewhere in the middle of a mountain stage in the Dolomites, Sir Bradley Wiggins, then a lowly team worker, unexpectedly found himself in a small group of top contenders battling for the win. And the thought occurred, for the first time, that he could achieve something as a Grand Tour contender. And as we now know – after fourth in the 2009 Tour de France, third in the 2011 Vuelta a España, then first in the 2012 Tour de France – it turned out he could achieve quite a lot.
When the Giro d'Italia starts in Naples on Saturday, Wiggins will make his return to that race amid hugely different circumstances. For the first time in 26 years, since Robert Millar finished second in 1987, a Briton will be gunning for the overall classification of Italy's biggest stage race.
No Briton has won the Giro d'Italia, second only to the Tour de France in prestige and at least equally difficult in terms of length, distance and mountainous challenges. A top-three result would make Wiggins the first Briton to finish on the podium in all three major Tours, a huge achievement. Yet the question of why potentially risk the Tour for a seemingly lesser objective like the Giro cannot be ignored. The history of cycling is littered with riders who tried to do the Double – cycling shorthand for winning the Giro and Tour in the same year – and failed, and the last to succeed was Marco Pantani 15 years ago.
However, Sky Team Principal Sir Dave Brailsford believes that for Wiggins, having a new challenge like the Giro and keeping his star rider's interest at 100 per cent is what makes focusing on the Italian race so worthwhile.
"He is genuinely motivated for it and that is the key thing. Having had the year he had last year" – where Wiggins won every target he had set himself – "it was important for him to find something that allows him to get enthusiastic about this season."
There was never a risk of complacency after the Tour, Brailsford insists. "But it's a bit like Arsenal not losing for the whole season they had. And the first time they lost the next season, they were going to cop it.
"If you just go back and try and repeat the same thing when it's been nearly perfect" – as Wiggins's season was in 2012 – "it draws comparison. So why do that, why not take a different approach and he can keep a little more low key, as he has done up to the Giro?
"And given what he went through last year, for him to have got himself into the shape he has done now is pretty remarkable – given the amount of distractions and that his life has changed. His daily life isn't recognisable now compared to 2012. So factor in all that, and the time and commitment he has had to keep on training, is quite something. We think about the following season quite early, and the idea of the Giro developed after winning the Tour. We wanted to avoid this direct comparison and, on top of that, there's a little bit of a bigger gap between the Giro and the Tour – five weeks instead of four in 2012, so there's more time for a full recovery. But the most important thing is Bradley is genuinely passionate about the Giro. And that's always going to count the most."
You must also remember that Wiggins is a cycling history nut. Able to recall the team kit, shoes and helmets of riders going back into the 1980s and having watched and re-watched the Giro and Tour as a teenager, Wiggins told Velonews this spring that "The Tour, the Giro and Paris-Roubaix [are] the three biggest for me. They're the best races in the world." So for a fan like Wiggins to leave a mark on all three would bring a deep personal satisfaction and, given the Giro was the first Grand Tour he raced in 2003 and was also the first he finished in 2005, success there seems appropriate.
There is also the route. The race's structure – individual time-trial followed by two weeks containing the main mountain stages – is very similar to the 2012 Tour de France. Last July Wiggins took the lead early on, consolidated it in the time-trial at Besancon, then defended it right through to Paris. The one big difference is there is no long final time-trial, meaning he will have no insurance after the mountain stages.
"To envisage a similar scenario is jumping the gun," Brailsford warns, "particularly in a race as unpredictable as the Giro." But it is not impossible.
Wiggins will almost certainly avoid mention of becoming the first rider for 15 years to do the Double unless he has the pink leader's jersey safely in his grasp on the Giro's final day in Brescia. But it will be on his mind, not least because he would be following in the wheel tracks of his childhood racing hero, Miguel Indurain, who won both back in 1992 and 1993.
"He's in very good shape and we're going into the Giro with a lot of confidence," says Brailsford, who draws a parallel with Wiggins's form going into last year's Tour. "It's pretty close, there's certainly no reason why he won't be competitive."
Brailsford admits that the 55- kilometre time-trial on stage eight – Wiggins's strongest suit – is where the Briton will hope to make his impact.
"It doesn't take a genius to figure that one out," Brailsford explained. There are certain areas where you want to think about not losing any time and certain areas where you think this is my opportunity to gain time, and that'll be one of them."
But unlike the Tour, Brailsford warns that the Giro has its own particular difficulties. "You have to be vigilant, all day every day. The Giro is a race which lends itself a lot more to opportunist racing, with tight twisty finishes and so on. There's a lot more that can happen there.
"It's a race where on the least expected day something can happen," – as it did in 2010 when a break of 65 saw five overall contenders knocked out of the running, and Wiggins's team-mate, Richie Porte, a first-year professional, in the lead.
As Brailsford puts it: "It's a very different kettle of fish to the Tour de France. But that's a good thing, because if every Grand Tour was the same, it would be really boring."
Bluffer's guide to the Giro
How old is the Giro d'Italia?
It started in 1908, five years after the Tour de France.
Sir Paul Smith has designed a new race-leader's jersey. Why is it pink?
It is sponsored by La Gazzetta dello Sport, the Italian sports newspaper which has pink pages.
Which is harder, the Giro or the Tour de France?
Overall, if you factor in the mental stress and the physical difficulty, the Tour de France is the hardest, longest endurance event in the world. However, riders often say that physically the Giro is at least the Tour's equal: it lasts the same time (three weeks), covers the same distance (around 3,500km) and has two sets of equally tough mountains in the Dolomites and the Alps. This year, for the first time, the Giro tackles the Galibier, the toughest single Alpine climb, which is usually used in the Tour.
Who's taking part this year apart from Wiggins?
Big names include the 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans, a Tour podium finisher in Vincenzo Nibali, and no less than four former Giro winners: Ryder Hesjedal, Stefano Garzelli, Ivan Basso and Michele Scarponi. Plus Mark Cavendish, already a winner of 10 Giro stages, and possibly David Millar, the last British Giro leader in 2011.
Who was the best British finisher?
Britain's one podium finish was for Robert Millar, who came second in 1987 when he also won the King of the Mountains title.
What is Wiggins's Giro track record?
He won the Giro prologue in 2010, when he finished 40th overall. Also took part in 2003 (he abandoned the race), 2005 (123rd), 2008 (134th) and 2009 (79th).
Is Chris Froome racing?
No. Wiggins is the sole leader there for Team Sky — unlike, probably, in the Tour de France.
Who has won the Giro and the Tour de France in the same year?
Fausto Coppi (It): 1949, 1952
Jacques Anquetil (Fr): 1964
Eddy Merckx (Bel): 1970, 1972, 1974
Bernard Hinault (Fr): 1982, 1985
Stephen Roche (Irl): 1987
Miguel Indurain (Sp): 1992, 1993
Marco Pantani (It): 1998