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Proving Grounds: For three riders, what happens at the Giro will shape July

Over the past decade, and particularly under the recent direction of Michele Acquarone, the Giro d’Italia has clawed its way out of the Tour de France’s lengthy shadow, establishing itself as a distinct experience and coveted prize rather than a warm-up, stepping stone, or second-tier tour. But while the Giro has recaptured and capitalized on some of the swagger it had in the 1970s, when its character made it the centerpiece of Jørgen Leth’s Stars and Watercarriers, it cannot entirely escape the influence of its older, more heralded brother. So while it is undoubtedly its own race, this year’s Giro still has big implications for the summer’s Tour de France, and three Giro storylines might help shape July’s racing.

1. Cloudy Sky, slight chance of reign?

For months now, the sometimes bizarre media sparring over Tour leadership between Sky’s two top men, 2012 Tour winner Bradley Wiggins and runner-up and heir apparent Chris Froome, has kept grand tour fans guessing who will ultimately lead the team come July. Following his Tour win, Wiggins committed to supporting Froome at the 2013 Tour and set his own sights on the Giro. But Wiggins has since made statements indicating that he wants to defend his crown in France, either as the designated leader, as co-leader, or perhaps most intriguingly to those familiar with cycling history, by letting the race decide.

On Monday, Sky boss David Brailsford did what he could to put rumors and chatter to rest, reiterating the team’s commitment to backing Froome at the Tour and dismissing the possibility of starting the race with two leaders. Assuming Brailsford’s statements accurately reflect the team’s mindset, the Giro will be Wiggins’ best and last chance to change his management’s mind. It will be an uphill battle in more ways than one.

So far this season, the publicly available data trend solidly in Froome’s favor. In winning the Tour of Oman, a stage of Tirreno-Adriatico, the Critérium International, and the Tour de Romandie, Froome has built a solid foundation for a run at the Tour and laid a strong claim to the leadership that was promised him after his supporting performance in 2012.

Wiggins has not been prominent on the results sheets in advance of the Giro, with a pair of fifth places in the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya and the Giro del Trentino as the centerpieces of his season to date. Collective Sky wins in the team time trials at both Trentino and on Sunday in stage 2 of the Giro are promising, but certainly not reminiscent of the storming run-in Wiggins had to his Tour victory. On Tuesday, he lost 17 seconds after he was gapped in the finale in Serra San Bruno.

Wiggins, however, has cast this season’s lackluster results as merely part of the plan. He has noted that, in keeping with Sky methodology, he has prioritized specific training in Mallorca and Tenerife over competition to ready himself for the Giro’s sharper climbs.

If he genuinely wants a shot at Sky’s top spot for the Tour and not just the No. 1 on his back, Wiggins will need to deliver the top result at the Giro. He has been unflinching in his assertion that he is in Italy to win, and anything less will be seen as a failure, even if a more reserved performance might be better preparation for a Tour defense.

But even if Wiggins takes the Giro by storm, there’s a catch. To lobby for full support in France, Wiggins would need to win the Giro in a manner that allows him to leave enough in reserve to allow the full recovery and rebuilding needed to mount a full-blown challenge at the Tour — all in the four weeks between the Giro finale in Breschia and the Tour start in Corsica. And in modern cycling, riders no longer have the luxury of simply pleading their readiness to directors. At data-driven Sky in particular, Wiggins will need to show the numbers to back up claims of readiness.

If Brailsford is as steadfast in his backing of Froome as his statements indicate, Wiggins’ Giro performance might have little impact on Sky’s actual Tour leadership decision but a substantial effect on how that decision will be perceived by fans. If Wiggins triumphs in Italy, denying him leadership status and a shot at a potential Giro/Tour double will be easily construed as a slap in the face of a defending champion and two-time grand tour winner. If he falters even slightly in Italy while Froome continues to thrive in his own preparation, supporting Froome will be more easily accepted as a calculated, pragmatic decision from the sport’s most pragmatic team.

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