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Wiggins keeps his eye on the road

Tour de France champion plays down rivalry with teammate Chris Froome as the challengers prepare for the Giro d'Italia.

Last Modified: 03 May 2013 13:59
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Talented field: Wiggins, third right, believes Vincenzo Nibali, third left, is his biggest rivalry ahead of the three-week Italian race which begins on Saturday [AFP]

Bradley Wiggins is focusing purely on the Giro d'Italia and doesn't want to discuss anymore whether he or Chris Froome will lead Team Sky at the Tour de France.

Wiggins has said for months that the Giro, which starts Saturday, is his top priority this year. But earlier this week he also indicated he might challenge Froome instead of helping him in the Tour.

"We're at the Giro now and as much as everybody would love to talk about that - including the British press, because they don't seem to quite understand it - it's really just concentrate on this first,'' Wiggins said on Thursday, his hair shaved short for the three-week race and his long sidebars removed.

"Training has gone well this week and everything is on track and we're here now,'' he added.

"It's always nice when you actually arrive at the venue. You get to see what the weather is like and get your race bike out and everything. There's still a couple days to go but you can feel the excitement building.''

Double attempt

Nobody has pulled off the Giro-Tour double in the same year since Marco Pantani accomplished the feat 15 years ago.

But if Wiggins maintains his form from last season, when he followed up his Tour victory by taking gold in the time trial at the London Olympics, anything is possible.

Vincenzo Nibali of Italy is regarded as Wiggins' top challenger, while defending champion Ryder Hesjedal could also contend again.

"For me (Nibali) is probably the favourite,'' Wiggins said.

"He's the one people have got to beat.''

While the Wiggins-Nibali rivalry remains the pre-race focal point, doping is still clouding the sport after a Spanish court's decision Tuesday to destroy the blood bags seized in the seven-year-old Operation Puerto case.

Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes was found guilty of endangering public health and given a one-year suspended jail sentence in the case. But the World Anti-Doping Agency is considering a possible appeal of the ruling by Judge Julia Santamaria, who ordered the destruction of more than 200 bags of blood and other evidence gathered in police raids on Fuentes in 2006.

Michele Scarponi, who was awarded the 2011 Giro title after Alberto Contador was stripped of the honour in another doping case, was banned for 18 months in the Puerto case in 2007.

"I'm not talking about that case anymore,'' Scarponi told The Associated Press.

Two-time Giro winner Ivan Basso, who served a two-year ban from the Puerto case, withdrew Thursday citing a cyst.

Tight contest

The title could come down to a contest between Wiggins' time trialling ability and Nibali's climbing prowess - or vice versa: how each rider performs in their rival's strongest areas.

"All 21 stages are important. You're not going to win the Giro on one time trial,'' Wiggins said.

"This Giro is more about the climbing than the time trialling, so I've been working on that.''

Nibali's biggest victory thus far remains the 2010 Spanish Vuelta title.

In last year's Tour he finished third behind Wiggins and Froome. Unlike Wiggins, he has his entire focus on the Giro, and will have the home fans' support.

"The Giro has been our declared goal since the start of the season,'' Astana team manager Alexandre Vinokourov said.

"We're all working exclusively to help Nibali win.''

Hesjedal has had a quieter build-up. But his combined skills of climbing and time trialling still make him a threat.

"It's obviously different to come back to a race being the winner from last year,'' Hesjedal said.

"I'm enjoying the experience. Everyone here has proven themselves and shown they're ready for the challenge. ... That will make the victory very special here this year.''

While Froome, Contador and the injured Joaquim Rodriguez are absent, other contenders include 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans, Scarponi and Robert Gesink.

"The reason I'm here is to prepare for the Tour but I don't want to drop back on the first climb,'' Evans said.

"I have respect for this race.''

The race begins with a 130-kilometre sprint stage in downtown Naples, which should draw large crowds to watch the likes of Mark Cavendish, Matthew Goss, John Degenkolb and Daniele Bennati fight for the first pink jersey.

It's the first time in 10 years that the race has opened with a sprint stage, and Cavendish - who has won a combined 36 stages at the Giro, Tour and Vuelta - is undoubtedly the man to beat.

"For sure I would like to win here tomorrow,'' Cavendish said, noting that he has not been able to test the course due to the heavy traffic in Naples.

"I can imagine it's even chaos to look at Google Maps for the streets of Napoli.''

But Cavendish won't have Alessandro Petacchi as a lead-out man now that the UCI has blocked the Italian's attempt to join the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team after announcing his resignation from the Lampre squad.

Wiggins could feature high after Sunday's second stage, a 17.4-kilometre team time trial on the island of Ischia, a discipline his Sky squad excels in.

In all, there are three time trials for a total of 92.8 kilometres.

Remaining in the Naples region, Stage 3 travels along the picturesque Amalfi coast. The course then heads down into the southern region of Calabria before turning north again into Basilicata. After a few stages in central Italy, the serious climbing begins in the north.

Including an uphill time trial for Stage 18, there are eight major climbing stages, with the final week including legendary peaks like the Galibier (one of two stages passing through France), the Gavia and Stelvio (in the same stage) and the Giao pass and Tre Cime di Lavaredo peak in the penultimate leg.

The race finishes in Brescia on May 26. 

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