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91st Giro d'Italia - The Brits in the 2008 Giro
By Staff
Date: 5/8/2008
91st Giro d'Italia - The Brits in the 2008 Giro

Giro d'Italia - Brits in the 2008 Giro
If this year's Giro d’Italia, which starts on May 10, is anything to go by there is a veritable flood of British talent. All told the Brits at the Giro number six riders, one team, and one Director Sportif.

Mark Sharon 
Editor at Large

Back in the Seventeenth Century it was the done thing for the British aristocratic young to go on a Grand Tour of Europe, visiting the ruins of ancient Greece and the art galleries of Italy. It was a big adventure and not without a degree of peril - if you ran out of money you would be hard pressed finding a Western Union back in 1770 - and transport wasn’t the best, hours sitting on under-padded seats or saddles, dubious hotels, as for the all those foreigners…

Actually, there are still a few Brits for whom this must sound a familiar story, except now there are ATMs. These are those young British professional cyclists who leave home and family for a life on the roads of Europe. The era of low-cost airlines and budget hotels may have smoothed out some of the rough spots, but it is still a life which requires something a bit special to survive in a world where you are both culturally and linguistically an outsider. And alongside above average athletic talent it helps if you are a bit of a maverick.

These factors are probably why until recently relatively few Brits have made a career in Europe, and when they do they tend to be well known, at least to cycling fans. Things are changing though, and if this year’s Giro d’Italia, which starts on May 10, is anything to go by there is a veritable flood of British talent. All told the Brits at the Giro number six riders, one team, and one Director Sportif.

30 year old Charles Wigelius the veteran of the Brits having ridden 6 Grand Tours. Photo ©2008 Mark Sharon

That’s a big change in just one year. In both 2006 and 2007 just one Brit contested the Giro, Charley Wegelius and Steve Cummings respectively. In 2003 there were three, followed by none in 2004, and two in 2005.

It’s part of an on-going trend to greater internationalization of cycling. In the past the Grand Tours had a heavy national bias, but this year of the 22 teams, just four are Italian registered, while of the 198 riders merely 54 are Italian, down substantially from 82 in 2003.

Does this foretell the future for British presence in Professional Road Racing? Perhaps, but it depends on whether you think it has a direct link to how Briton’s are performing on the track. Certainly most of the current crop of cyclists has made its mark in that arena. That makes sense. Britain is a crowded island with a mediocre road-racing scene – no thanks to the authorities. While one has to applaud those regions who have embraced the Tour of Britain, this enthusiasm has yet to be extended to other races and throughout the rest of the season. The Track offers an oasis for the sport. It also allows the sport to collect and focus talent in one place.

2008 World Madison Champions Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins.
Photo ©2008 Mark Sharon

As for what else makes the British professional cyclist in Europe differ as sportsmen from many of their countrymen - it is the hunger to win. The success of British cyclists at the World track championships was as much down to the aggressive desire to take apart the opposition and win as physical ability, Shane Sutton’s Aussie influence playing no small part. If this could be mirrored on the football pitch or the cricket field then there would be less anguish over results in the British press.

So who are these Brits at the Giro? As riders there are: Mark Cavendish; Bradley Wiggins; Thomas Geraint; Steven Cummings; Charley Wegelius; David Millar. In addition there is Sean Yates as a Directeur Sportif.

Mark Cavendish:
born 21 May 1985, Isle of Man. Team: High Road (formerly T-Mobile).

Cavendish hails from the Isle of Man, a place famous for its TT motorcycle races. Together with team mate Bradley Wiggins he is current UCI World Madison Champion. While he appears to have officially started as a pro in 2007, he actually began road-racing with Sparkasse in 2005 before moving to T-Mobile for the 2006 season.

Cavendish is an out and out sprinter, having made his name on the track as part of the GB squad. He has adapted to road-racing with apparent ease, winning eleven times in 2007, and with a further five wins in 2008, including the Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen and the prologue of the Tour of Romandie. Of all the Brits Cavendish has the best chance of a stage win. In addition, though it might not happen this year, if he continues to improve at the same rate he has a chance at the Points jersey too.

Mark Cavendish prepares for the Tour de France prologue in London in 2007.
Photo ©2008 Mark Sharon

The really big question mark over this last ambition will be his ability to stay the distance in a major tour, especially given his self-confessed inability to climb. His desire to win is high, but if he suffers the sort of start he did in the last year’s Tour de France when he crashed during the first two stages his morale could take a terminal battering.

Bradley Wiggins
born April 28, 1980 - Team: High Road.

Wiggins was born in Ghent, Belgium, to an Australian Father, though he spent most of youth growing up in London. His more public successes have been on the track, with medals at both the Sydney and Athens Olympics, as well as at numerous World Track Championships. At Athens he became only the second Briton in Olympic history to win three medals at one games equaling Mary Rand’s haul at the Tokyo in 1964, with gold in the 4km individual pursuit, silver in the team pursuit, and bronze with Rob Hayles in the Madison.

Despite his lengthy roll of honour on the track Wiggins’ road-racing palmares haven’t been quite so spectacular. Since turning pro the weight of expectation has been on him doubling up with David Millar as Britain’s best chance for wins in the prologue and individual time-trial. Certainly he doesn’t seem to have found his ideal team set-up.

After a false start with the Linda McCartney team in 2000, Wiggins moved to Française des Jeux. After two years he moved to Roger Legeay’s Credit Agricole where, in 2005, he had his first experience of the Giro. For the 2006 and 2007 seasons he moved on to Cofidis. Whether the 2008 Giro will allow him to deliver on these hopes is to be seen. The chances of such success are arguably better than they have ever been. High Road is a markedly different culture to the “old-school” French teams, and he might find a better home amongst its more international set-up.

Geraint Thomas:
Born 25 May 1986, Cardiff, Wales. Team: Barloworld

Continuing the British track-turned-road-racer tradition, Thomas is a member of the current World Champion pursuit squad, which also includes Bradley Wiggins. After riding for a season with, he joined Barlowworld in 2007 and quickly saw action in his first Tour de France, finishing 140th on General Classification. Given his team pursuit skills Thomas’ main duties during the Giro are likely to be as part of the train getting sprinter Robert Hunter to the front of the pack, though his ability to sprint may be put given a chance to show itself.

Steve Cummings:
Born 19 March 1981 in Wirral, Merseyside. Team: Barloworld.

After three years as a pro, Cummings finally secured his first win as a professional road racer this year by taking Stage 2 of the 2008 Giro della Provincia di Reggio Calabria. Having started with Landbouwkrediet-Colnago he switched to Discovery Channel 2007 before moving to Barloworld in 2008. As a two-time World Pursuit Champion (2005, 2006) and Olympic Silver Medalist (Athens 2004) he will be a key part of the aforementioned sprint train.

Charles ("Charly") Wegelius:
Born 26 April 1978 in Espoo, Finland. Team: Liquigas.

Wegelius is regarded by many as the “forgotten man” as far as Brits in the pro-peloton are concerned. This partly down to the fact he has spent practically his entire professional career in Italy and partly due to an incident in 2005 which estranged him from many in British Cycling.

Charly Wegelius - Liquigas  Photo ©2008 Mark Sharon

His affinity with Italy started when he joined the great Mapei-Quickstep as a neo-pro in 2000. He then moved to DiNardi-Colpack when Mapei quit the sport, and thence to Liquigas in 2005. The incident which marred his relationship with British Cycling took place at the 2005 World Road Race Championships, when he was accused of supporting his Italian professional team-mates at the expense of GB team leader Roger Hammond.

Wegelius’ Grand Tour experience is strong having ridden all three. His debut in the Tour de France last year saw him finish in 45th spot, by far the highest placed Briton. Wegelius’ strength lies primarily as a climber supporting the likes of Andrea Noe and Franco Pellizotti.

David Millar:
Born 4 January 1977 in Mtarfa, Malta. Team: Slipstream-Chipotle

Born in Malta to Scottish parent’s Millar is Britain’s pre-eminent time-trialist, and the only British rider to have worn all three Tour de France jerseys. David is also the current national champion of both the road and time trial disciplines. Touted as Britain’s next hope for Tour de France glory following on from Chris Boardman, Millar initially delivered by winning the 2000 prologue of the Tour de France. Unhappily, the hope was short-lived, with crashes and mechanical problems dogging his attempts in the following three events. His problems culminated with his admission of doping in 2004 which brought his career to a juddering halt with a resulting two year suspension. 

David Millar - Tour de France 2007 returned to racing in the yellow jersey of Saunier Duval/Prodir. Photo ©2008 Mark Sharon

Millar returned to competition in 2006 with the Saunier Duval-Prodir team, winning stage 14 of the 2006 Vuelta a España. Now with Slipstream, in which he has a shareholding, Millar is looking at his first Giro d’Italia. Whether he will come anywhere near emulating his namesake and fellow Scot, Robert Millar, is a moot point. He will have to improve considerably on his 59th position overall in last year’s Tour de France to stand a chance of a high placing. A more realistic outcome will be a brace of his specialist TT stage wins.

Sean Yates:
Directeur Sportif - Team: Astana

We can’t end this analysis without mentioning Sean Yates, the cyclist’s cyclist and undoubtedly one of the best domestiques seen in the pro-peloton. Yates is why the term “domestique” is a compliment, and a word synonymous with suffering with dignity. Few sports have such a role - perhaps only the offensive line of an American Football team come close.

1994 Tour de France Sean Yates in yellow leads team mate Lance Armstrong.

After competitive life with teams like Fagor, Linda McCartney, Motorola and finally with Discovery Channel, during which time he won stages of the Tour de France, Veulta and Paris Nice, Yates is now Director Sportif with Astana . This isn’t his first foray as DS at the Giro d’Italia, having taken the Linda McCartney squad to it in 2000. He’ll be hoping that the future will be lot “Maglia Rosa” than last time.

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