The Tour de France’s meaner brother

Amongst the intra-team sniping from Team Sky’s Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome about who’s going to be allowed to win the Tour de France in two months’ time, it’s easy to forget that the first of cycling’s three Grand Tours has already begun. The Giro D’Italia doesn’t quite have the same international recognition as it’s big French brother, but the common perception is that its mountains are ever-so-slightly more brutal, and less forgiving too. This year, as well as stealing the awe-inspiring Col du Galibier from le tour, the Giro has attracted the likes of Wiggins and home hope Vincenzo Nibali – the third man on last year’s Champs Elysée’s podium.

More than either of the other two Grand Tours though, the Giro is about climbing. With Saturday’s individual time trial playing to the Wiggins’ strength against the clock, his rivals for the General Classification, riders like Nibali, defending champion Ryder Hejsedal of Canada and the age-defying Aussie Cadel Evans will be forced to take the fight to the British rider, which should lead to an excit- ing three weeks across the peninsular. Watch out for Nibali, nicknamed ‘the shark’, taking daredevil risks going downhill and Evans’ trademark punchy uphill sprints. Otherwise, team tactics could be key, with Sky likely to try and shut down attacks in the same uncompromising way which was successful last July, but Nibali’s Astana team, with young talent such as the highly thought of 22 year-old Fabio Aru, should prove formidable opposition.

The scary thing this year is that the mythical Galibier is perhaps not even among the top five most challenging climbs in the event. The cyclists takng part will display a terrifying penchant for sadomasochism to the Stelvio Pass (famous for its appearance on Top Gear as the road of a thousand hairpins), whilst even the lesser stages, such as Monday’s Stage Three are able to cause some big time gaps in the peleton. Anyone on the look-out for some seriously painful climbing should be tuning in on what is set to be a fearsome Stage 19. Taking in Stelvio, the equally imposing Gavia Pass, and then ending on a mountain-top finish upon the Val Martello climb, that is a say that may well see a winner emerge.

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It’d be remiss to ignore Mark Cavendish too, as the Manxman won his first Grand Tour stage since joining the Belgian Omega-Pharma Quick- Step team over the Winter. With a team fully focused on him, and if he is able to struggle across the high mountains, Cavendish should be a factor in the race for the red jersey given to the quickest stage finisher. Although in previous years that ac- colade has gone to the main climb- ers, it’ll be interesting to see whether Cavendish or the Australian Matt Goss can get enough points on the flatter stages to challenge.

Other things to watch out for include the wave of young Colombians taking the sport by storm. Two of them will be among Wiggins’ most needed helpers, in Olympic Silver medallist Rigoberto Uran and Ser- gio Henao, but Carlos Betancur who is racing for the French AG2R squad may be a better bet to make an impact, given he will be able to work for himself, and also has the incentive of remaining eligible for the Best Young Rider competition.

In reality though, this race is a massive chance for Sir Bradley Wig- gins to add becoming the first British winner of the Giro to last year’s achievements. Especially now that Team Sky’s sporting director Sir David Brailsford seems to have clarified that Froome will be the team’s main hope on the French side of the Alps, Wiggins will have his eyes firmly on riding into the distance over the next three weeks.