Six days before he begins his attempt to become the first British rider to win the Giro d'Italia, Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) has said he believes that Vincenzo Nibali, his biggest rival in this year's race, is in better condition than he was last year when he finished third at the Tour de France behind the Team Sky duo Wiggins and Chris Froome.
Speaking to the press at a hotel in Wigan, close to his home in the north on England, Wiggins said he had watched Nibali closely during the recent Giro del Trentino and was impressed by what he saw. "I watched him very, very closely. He's difficult to read because… he doesn't bluff, but he doesn't show a lot of emotion. He's very crafty.
"I think I learned more about him than he learned about me. I didn't really get the opportunity to let go on the climbs there. I had the issue with my bike, so they never really saw how I was, and the day before I couldn't really come through on him because we had Kosta [Siutsou] up the road. So it was all a bit cat and mouse."
Wiggins admits that the Giro route is more suited to the Astana leader, and has no doubts about how motivated Nibali will be. "The Giro is his pride and joy. I think there's a lot at stake for him in this race. He's the big Italian favourite. He's trained for this. This is his event. He's not doing the Tour after it, so this is his one big [objective].
"I think he's in the best shape that he's ever been in. He's got all of the attributes needed to win it – he love the big climbs, all those tricky little descents, and he well prepared for all the other things that the Giro throws at you. He's got a very strong team."
Wiggins added, though, that he is not afraid of the challenge that lies ahead, nor is he afraid of Nibali. "I don't fear him. I respect him. I know his strengths and I know his weaknesses. I think, in that respect, I certainly won't underestimate him. For me he's the man to beat, and I know what I have to do."
Wiggins says he has never been in such good form on the climbs, particularly the steeper ascents that have been seen as a particular weakness in the past. He admits Nibali may still have an edge in such terrain, but that edge may not be enough to win the Italian the Giro title.
"I still don't know whether I'll stay with Nibali on some of those really tough finishes, but I know that I'll only lose a couple of seconds here and there. I think at most, on some of those really steep finishes, I may lose 20 seconds to him if I'm on a bad day. But I'm pretty confident I can stay him on most of the climbs whatever he throws at me. That's all I have to do I think, because in the time trials that are there I think I can take the time on him," said the Briton.
Wiggins also picked out defending Giro champion Ryder Hesjedal as another man to watch.
"I don't underestimate anyone, but Hesjedal I've got to have an eye on. No one expected that of him last year. I saw him in Catalunya and he looked a shadow of himself and I thought, ‘He's not going to make it in time.' But when I saw him the Ardennes a month later he was like a different rider. All of sudden I was thinking, ‘He's back to where he needs to be.' Samuel Sánchez is another one, and Ivan Basso. He was a shadow of himself in Trentino, but he's been like that in the past and won the Giro. You just can't underestimate anyone. They are all potential rivals," said Wiggins.
Going for the Giro-Tour double
While Wiggins is focused on winning this year's Giro d'Italia, the Briton has also considered the scenario in which he becomes Sky's captain at the Tour de France, rather than Froome, in an attempt at a historic Giro-Tour double victory
"The best-case scenario at this stage is I win the Giro, I come out of it, stay healthy, we do all the training camps that we do in between the Giro and the Tour," Wiggins told AFP. "Chris's preparations continue as they are, he ends up winning the Dauphine and we both arrive at the Tour ready to go in the best possible (shape). And Dave's (Brailsford) got to make a call, somewhere there, as to who is the leader.
"At this stage, all being well, it may be that we end up joint leaders for that first week until the racing decides."
Peter Cossins has written about professional cycling since 1993 and is a contributing editor to Procycling. He is the author of The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races (Bloomsbury, March 2014) and has translated Christophe Bassons' autobiography, A Clean Break (Bloomsbury, July 2014).
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