Bradley Wiggins has a mission. At nine minutes past three on Wednesday afternoon, central European time, Britain's cycling knight will propel his bike out of Montecatini Terme, a small town that traces its roots to medieval times, and head south-east across the warm Tuscan countryside, destination Florence. He will ride for around an hour, covering nearly 58km to finish in front of the Nelson Mandela Forum with the aim of completing a long ride to freedom from a year that, appropriately enough since we are in the land of Latin, has threatened to be his annus horribilis, and then some.
It is the longest distance ever demanded of the riders in the time trial at the World Championships but Wiggins likes to have a mission. He is a bike rider who likes to be programmed, likes to be instructed, likes to know exactly what he has to do. It helps him deliver and it helps keep out the doubts. "It's just you against your bike," he said. The way he likes it.
There have been doubts this year, not least the ones that gripped him through eight stages of the Giro d'Italia. It was on a damp May day in Treviso some 170 miles north-east of today's race that illness forced him to end his quest for the pink jersey. He limped home and could barely bring himself to watch Chris Froome replace him as Tour de France champion a couple of months later. The king of the road is dead, long live the king…
The prospect of ending what has been the most painful of years with a rainbow jersey, finding his own little pot of gold in Florence in the shape of his first World Championship title on the road, has become a huge motivation, and as his smooth ride around Britain last week demonstrated there is cause for optimism.
"He knows where he is now," said Rod Ellingworth, Britain's team coach and Sky's performance manager. "He knows what he has to do and time trialling is his thing, right since he has been a kid he has been world-class at the time trial. We will certainly see a good ride from Brad. It is going to be close. I think for him, to be honest, it's win or bust. When you think about the World Championships it is all about that rainbow jersey. Ultimately it is about winning, that is our business."
The tense, anxious Wiggins of earlier in the year has been replaced by a noticeably more relaxed athlete and a bigger one too. He has bulked up for the demands of the time trial, adding nearly a stone over the course of the summer.
Wiggins arrived back in Italy on Monday, having flown from London in a private jet, and this morning he and Alex Dowsett, the other Briton in the 37-strong field, set out for a recce of the course, a largely flat and straight route until it becomes more technical in the closing stages through Florence's narrow streets. It should suit Wiggins, suggests Ellingworth.
Tony Martin, the German who is among the four major contenders this afternoon alongside the Swiss Fabian Cancellara and the American Taylor Phinney, has questioned Wiggins' preparation, wondering how riding the Tour of Britain sets him up for a one-off time trial. Martin, the defending champion and last man off today, rode in the team time trial on Sunday which followed the same route. Meanwhile Wiggins was careering around the streets of London.
But Wiggins and those around him would beg to differ. The Tour of Britain helped Wiggo get his mojo back. Dave Brailsford, British Cycling's performance director, followed Wiggins through the week and suggested it was a "huge boost" to the 33-year-old.
From day two when he fell off his bike – and, thankfully for Wiggins, straight on top of Giovanni Visconti to break the fall – on a nasty descent in the Lake District but leapt straight back on and then a day later tearing around Knowsley Safari Park to an emphatic time trial victory (one that had Dowsett lauding him as world champion in waiting), it has looked like the Wiggins of old. The opposition may have been worthy rather than daunting but nonetheless it mattered.
"For him the Tour of Britain was a massive hit, a huge hit actually," said Ellingworth. "Winning that, for his morale, it has given him a fair boost. I think it was great for him."
It was his first victory of any kind since the Olympics, and it is a simple truth of sport that winning makes all the difference.
Since the Games, sporting life has been a struggle for the man who has four gold medals safely tucked away at home. There have been a number of different Wigginses on show in 2013. First on stage was the ageing alpha male, the pride leader who saw his status threatened by a younger – quite possibly better – rival (for Wiggins certainly saw Chris Froome as a rival). When the two sat side-by-side to chat to a handful of journalists at Team Sky's hotel in Majorca on the eve of the season, it was Wiggins who held court. "I am still," his body language screamed, "the man."
Then on the eve of the Giro, came the next version. This time the hotel was on the outskirts of Wigan. Wiggins claimed to be in the best shape of his life, but there was an anxiety there. He still refused to accept unequivocally Froome's promoted status within Team Sky. He refused to shake hands with those who had reassembled to speak to him, worried about the chance of picking up any infection so soon before the race and rubbed his hands obsessively with germ-killing gel. That was pretty much how he raced, and then it was illness that finally ended his fading challenge.
"Mentally, it wasn't going right," said Wiggins this week of the Giro. "I was asking myself, 'What am I doing here?' And a lot of other things going on behind the scenes didn't help."
Wiggins selects the day he was told once and for all he would not be returning to the Tour de France – thanks to a knee injury that nagged enough to suit all parties – as the moment that sparked the turnaround, refocused the training. But he still found the Tour hard, or rather his absence from it – the champion not defending his crown, trying to concentrate on his training in Majorca or around the time trial course in Knowsley Safari Park, not far from his home. He did not want to witness Froome's elevation.
On Sunday Wiggins will ride for Froome in the road race. There is no Plan B for Britain; this one is Froome or bust and Wiggins buys into that. Unequivocally. The pretence that the two such different men might get on away from their bikes has been dropped – they will meet for the first time since Froome's Tour victory when Froome arrives at the team hotel on Friday – and that seems to suit everybody. Wiggins appears once again content in who he is, what he is doing and what he has got to do. Today he knows what the mission is, and he has everything in place to achieve it. In a city regarded as the birthplace of the Renaissance, Wiggins is ready to be reborn.
Flying the flag: Brits in action this week
Wednesday Bradley Wiggins and Alex Dowsett ride in the time trial, 37 riders going off at intervals of one and a half minutes as they seek to record the fastest time over the 57.9km (36-mile) course. Dowsett came eighth last year but his build-up has been dogged by illness and the aim is for another top 10 finish.
Friday The Yates twins, Adam and Simon, ride for Britain in the Under-23 road race. Simon Yates finished third in last week's Tour of Britain, including a surprise stage win on Dartmoor, and is regarded as the next big thing in British cycling. The 21-year-old already has a senior world title on the track to his name.
Saturday Lizzie Armitstead will lead a young British team in the women's road race that includes Lucy Garner, a junior champion a year ago. Armitstead won a silver at last year's London Olympics but the formidable Dutchwoman Marianne Vos will be the one to beat yet again.
Sunday Wiggins will be back on the road but this time in support of Chris Froome. The 2013 Tour de France winner will have the backing of a strong-looking line-up in the road race, a 272km charge through Tuscany. Mark Cavendish will also ride the hilly course in a support role two years after he took a famous victory in Copenhagen.