There is something perverse about Bradley Wiggins and the Giro d'Italia. Admirably perverse, but perverse all the same. Today Wiggins will set out on a 2,146-mile slog up and down Italy, beginning beneath the invigorating sunshine of a Neapolitan spring and finishing, barring injury or accident, 23 limb-draining days later in Brescia, the Lombardy city that squats in the foothills of the Alps.
This is the race he says he despises, says is horrendous, says is crazy. Yet above all, even more so now he has that yellow jersey in his locker, it is the race that fascinates him. It always has. It is the one he would watch videos of in his childhood home in Kilburn, the race for which he would buy the puzzling pink sheets of the Gazetta dello Sport to stare at black-and-pink photographs of lean men struggling up snow-capped mountains.
This is the race for the cycling geek in him, the Top Trump card that does not beat them all but is the one they all want. Wiggins wants the pink jersey, il maglia rosa. It sounds better in Italian, the language of lovers. Given the manner in which he discusses the Giro it could be his true love, couldn't it?
"I don't know about that," he says. It is a love-hate affair. "I despise it in some ways but there is an attraction with that as to why I want to win it. A lot goes back to my childhood and watching the race on VHS. When I [last] rode it, it was horrendous, you'd be sat in the bus four hours a day just travelling to the next hotel. The difficulty of the race too – in 2009 I remember a mountain stage of about 250k [155 miles] and we finished at half seven after eight and half hours and it seemed inhumane really, like no other race... but there is something about that." Wiggins enjoys talking about his sport, what's gone, what lies ahead, in a way that many sports people, immersed in the here and now, do not.
"There are times that, even though I am physically in great shape, you think 'Why on earth did I choose to do this bloody race?' Last week we were looking at the route and the narrowness of some of the roads – you think, 'How are the cars going to get down there?' "
Team Sky, of course, have planned how the cars will get down there. Planning is what Sky do. They did so immaculately for Wiggins' route to victory in last year's Tour – he took yellow on exactly the day determined – but in the Giro the best-laid plans must take into account this race's "craziness".
"It's just different," says Wiggins. "The Giro is much more about the sport. Everyone who comes out to watch is in love with the race. You get that element on the Tour where people come out to spit at the riders or boo them, but at the Giro it's just craziness. There's a part of that the riders really like.
"Ten years ago I rode the Giro; I was 23 and [Mario] Cipollini was world champion and [Marco] Pantani rode – all these great names I grew up watching. I ended up sitting at the back, surviving. It was horrendous and then I got eliminated with three days to go.
"There's a lot more carnage than the Tour, which is regimented and all played by the rules. Spectators can get a bit excited in Italy. You hope they take a shine to you and don't want to push you off."
Wiggins has never before arrived in Italy with great expectations. Now they accompany him at every turn of the wheel. Vincenzo Nibali, the home favourite, has prepared for the Giro as the moment of his season. Wiggins has prepared for the Giro – his build-up focused on climbing – but whether it is his moment of this season remains to be seen.
At Sky's Tenerife base he has done two-week blocks at altitude, climbing 32,000m – the equivalent of sea level to the top of Everest four times – during each stay. He feels in better shape than ever. The numbers confirm it. Sky's addiction to numbers, the on-board computers that detail a rider's progress, has been criticised for taking away the flair. It is riding only to instruction, say numerous critics.
"I'd love to be Pantani-esque, making these historic breakaways," says Wiggins. "But I've got to ride to my strengths and train to my strengths. I want to win and get the pleasure from winning and having pushed the boundaries of my body. Yes, I'd love to be more aggressive, throw it all on the line and maybe risk losing the race, but I want to be in pink in Brescia. That's the most important thing."
One of Wiggins' skills is absorbing instruction – currently from the former swimming and rowing coach Tim Kerrison, who has become his key adviser. It is Kerrison, also coach to Chris Froome, an interested observer of the next three weeks from his home in the south of France, who has done much to convince Wiggins that the double is on – not prioritising a defence of the Tour, but trying to win both.
"This is about what I want to do," says Wiggins. "This is what has made me go out and train. I was in Mallorca and it was pissing down with rain, out there for five hours in the mountains. That's what the Giro has been about for me. I want to finish my career having won the Giro and the Tour. If I get the opportunity to win a second Tour then great. But at the moment my priority is the Giro.
"It's a very difficult thing coming off last year, trying to please other people, or please Sky going back to the Tour and trying to win. But I like the challenge of both. In training for the Giro, physically it's probably going to make me better for the Tour. It's kind of killing two birds with one stone."
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