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Cycling: 'Third man' Mark Cavendish looking for centre stage at the Giro d'Italia

British sprinter targets first pink jersey in the Giro d'Italia after agenda set by Wiggins and Froome

Come Saturday evening there is every chance the streets of Naples will be playing host to a rare sight, a Briton resplendent in the maglia rosa, the pink jersey that adorns the leader of the Giro d'Italia. There are also genuine hopes that come the end of the race in Brescia some 22 days later it will still be worn by a Briton, and that would be a unique event.

It will not be the same man though, a fact that demonstrates the extraordinary rise of British cycling in recent times. It also demonstrates the extent to which Sir Bradley Wiggins, cast as the second Briton in that scenario, has come to dominate attention; his bid to become the first from this country to win the Giro, his bid to join a select band to win the Tour de France and the Giro, his relationship with compatriot Chris Froome, which of them will play the leading role in the Tour – an issue Wiggins refused to discuss in a marked change of tack from earlier in the week.

Instead, Saturday will be about a rider who has almost come to be regarded as Britain's third man in recent months. If the overall race has been designed with half an eye on making sure the current Tour de France champion competes, the opening stage is undoubtedly right up Mark Cavendish's street. It is the first time in a decade the race has started with a sprint stage and Cavendish is a strong favourite to take the 130km dash and dart around the streets of Naples.

Cavendish was the first man across the line at last year's Tour, claiming his fourth successive last-day victory in Paris. Overall, it was his 23rd Tour stage win and took his total of Grand Tour stage wins to 36. In history only eight men have more to their name.

It was also his last act for Team Sky, the dream of hosting him and Wiggins in the same team proving impossible to compute with the reality on the roads. Instead, he will lead Omega Pharma-Quick Step tomorrow, a side assembled around his sprint ambitions.

"It would be a dream to take the pink jersey in the first stage," said Cavendish. "It's a special race, the Giro, so I'd like to get it started in a good way."

The team's preparations have not been ideal as they have been unable to ride the route because of the weight of traffic in Naples. "I can imagine it's even chaos to look at Google Maps for the streets of Napoli," said Cavendish.

The 27-year-old would be more than happy to end tomorrow in the pink, but the colour he wants after a further 20 stages is red. He missed the points jersey by a single point a year ago after winning three stages but crashing when well set on two others cost him. It is an honour he has already collected at the Tour and the Vuelta a Espana. "My goal is to win at least a stage," said Cavendish. "Hopefully a jersey comes from that."

Wiggins had his own taste of pink three years ago after an opening time trial in Amsterdam. He is first expected to feature prominently on day two, a team time trial, but his focus is on wearing the jersey come the business end of the race.

"All 21 stages are important," he said, sporting a new haircut without the trademark sideburns. He picked out the home favourite Vincenzo Nibali, whose season is focused solely on the Giro, as the man to beat. "You're not going to win the Giro on one time trial. This Giro is more about the climbing than the time trialling, so I've been working on that."

His task was made marginally easier with the withdrawal of Ivan Basso, twice a winner of the Giro. The Italian cannot race because of a cyst on his buttock.