Wiggins embarks on Giro d’Italia mission

Sir Bradley Wiggins will begin his quest to become the first British winner of the Giro d’Italia tomorrow when the opening Grand Tour of the 2013 season departs from Naples.

Team Sky’s Wiggins, who has never finished higher than 40th in the Giro, will attempt to claim the ‘maglia rosa’, or pink jersey, from 2012 winner Ryder Hesjedal, who is aiming to defend his title with his Garmin-Sharp team.

Wiggins’ bid is significantly helped by 92.3km (57 miles) of time-trialling across the 21 stages, which is his main strength – a fact underlined by his superb gold medal-winning performance in the time-trial at London 2012.

However, the brutal high mountain stages of the Giro will likely play into his rivals’ hands.

One such rival is home favourite Vincenzo Nibali, who has already beaten Wiggins at the Giro del Trentino this season – a race seen as perfect preparation for the difficult parcours of the Giro d’Italia.

Wiggins did have a mechanical failure on the queen stage of that race, but the form of the Astana man in the high mountains will be of concern to the Briton, who can struggle at times with steep gradients.

However, Wiggins claims to have made improvements in the climbing discipline and, with two of the three time-trials completed by the time the riders enter the Italian Alps in the second week, he will hope to have built up a lead over his General Classification rivals.

The final week looks particularly hazardous, with the Giro entering the French Alps for a summit finish on the legendary Col du Galibier on stage 15, before ascending the infamous Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the Italian Dolomites on the penultimate stage.

Attacks will almost certainly be fired at Team Sky’s train of climbers, but whether they will be fruitful depends on the strength of Wiggins’ team of dedicated domestiques.

Colombian’s Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran, the latter an Olympic road-race silver medallist, will provide the power when the gradients, biting the riders at close to 20% in some places, start to kick up.

Christian Knees, Konstantin Siutsou and Dario Cataldo will also assist Wiggins in the higher terrains as Sky look to control the pace at the front of the peloton in typically robust style.

The Giro will also take in the stunning views of the revered Passo dello Stelvio on stage 19, and this could be a perfect opportunity for Nibali to strike a telling blow to Wiggins’ hopes if he is fresh enough.

Nibali and Hesjedal, although seen as Wiggins’ main rivals, will not be the only threats with a number of dangerous riders also joining the peloton.

Australian rider Cadel Evans, who has battled a debilitating virus for the past season, will be aiming for a top five finish at least with his BMC squad, while Spain’s Sami Sanchez is also a formidable climber.

Dark horses, and riders to watch for the future, include Mauro Santambrogio, who finished just behind fellow countryman Nibali in the recent Giro del Trentino and Holland’s Robert Gesink, who will be competing in his maiden Giro d’Italia.

Ivan Basso, a two-time Giro winner, will miss out owing to a buttock cyst, but Wiggins would have expected to beat the veteran Italian regardless of his injury.

Elsewhere, Mark Cavendish will spearhead the Omega-Pharma Quick-Step team as he goes in search of stage victories ahead of the Tour de France.

He will face competition from seasoned sprint rival Matt Goss and the electric John Degenkolb, who dominated the Vuelta a Espana sprint classification last season.

Other Britons include David Millar, who will work diligently for Hesjedal on the Garmin-Sharp team, the duo of Adam Blythe and Steve Cummings on Evans’ BMC squad, and the talented Alex Dowsett who will ride in support of 2011 Vuelta winner Juan Jose Cobo on the Movistar squad.

But the focus will undoubtedly be on the Wiggins, Nibali and Hesjedal fight at the pointy end of the race. All three riders look to be in peak form – with some tipping Hesjedal, who has impressed in the Spring classics this season, to retain his crown.

Wiggins, though, will be a prominent force in the time-trials and, if he can perform to the best of his abilities, may well have the race sewn up by the time the peloton rolls into the Alps during the second week.

His dream of emulating boyhood hero Miguel Indurain in standing on the top step of the podium in Brescia wearing the famous maglia rosa could not be closer and a victory in this illustrious race would unquestionably move the popular Briton a step closer to cycling immortality.

Skiing is back on our TV screens!

Did you grow up glued to the TV on a Sunday teatime?

If you weren’t, what else could you have been doing? Ski Sunday was on!

Yes, it’s that time of year where Ski Sunday makes a welcome return to our TV screens.

A quick burst of that famous music and I’m transported back to my childhood. Memories of watching legends of the sport across the 1990s and 2000s such as Hermann Maier, Alberto Tomba and of course Michael Walchhofer flood back to me.

After going through a period where the likes of Bode Miller and Didier Cuche swept aside the competition in the late 2000s, skiing has been taken over by another Austrian – Marcel Hirscher.

Currently top of the overall FIS World Cup standings, the Austrian has proved to be almost unbeatable in the Slalom discipline and his placing of second behind the USA’s Ted Ligety in the Giant Slalom confirms his status as the number one skier in the world right now.

This week’s Parallel Slalom in Moscow perfectly evidenced his lofty position within the sport.

The Parallel Slalom is held on a 56 metre-high ramp in the middle of Moscow (there is also one in Munich earlier in the season), providing a left-right course of 175 metres which racers navigate in around 20 seconds. It is to skiing what Twenty20 is to cricket – and it’s every bit as exciting.

Racers ski head-to-head over two runs in a knockout system, but there was no stopping Hirscher as he blew the competition away, crushing the likes of Ivica Kostelic and Andre Myhrer on his way to an emphatic win.

With the World Championships beginning next week in the revered host resort of Schladming, Austria, Hirscher will be hot favourite to scoop gold in the slalom in front of his vociferous home support.

In the women’s competition, Slovenia’s Tina Maze is the dominant force. In the overall standings, she has more than double the points of her nearest rival, Germany’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch, and leads the Super G and Giant Slalom competitions while also occupying podium positions in the Downhill and Slalom events.

Thanks to Ski Sunday’s excellent coverage we get to see all the great drama of this fantastic sport.

From wincing at the horrific crashes on the icy slopes of some of Europe’s most feared courses, to watching racers launch themselves off infamous jumps like the Hundschopf (Dog’s Head) at Wengen, Switzerland.

Great Britain’s most famous skier, Graham Bell, now retired, takes hand-held cameras down the terrifying courses, giving viewers an amazing insight into the speed and danger of a world-class Downhill course.

His entertaining co-presenter Ed Leigh adds great value to one of the BBC’s most famous shows, and the cast was recently enriched further when Olympic skeleton-bob gold medallist Amy Williams joined the show.

Ski Sunday gives this addictive, breathtaking sport the coverage it deserves, and I will continue to be glued to my TV for as long as it endures on our screens.