Nick Westby: British sport’s next big rivalry 
pedals away on Italian adventure

The next great rivalry within British sport has begun.

Sir Bradley Wiggins versus Chris Froome is a story that will take up column inches throughout the summer as the best endurance cyclists of the era go wheel to wheel in search of the greatest prizes on the road.

One is the hero of British sport, the all-conquering superman who broke records and boundaries in 2012, and captured the imagination of a public that watched in awe.

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The other is the quiet, unassuming young man who goes about his business with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of ability.

If it smacks of Coe versus Ovett all those years ago, then that is because it has similar characteristics to one of British sport’s most enduring rivalries.

For the best part of a decade, middle-distance runners Sebastian Coe – the marketable, middle-class champion of running – and Steve Ovett – his down-to-earth, shy nemisis – traded victories, records and medals in a duel that captivated sports fanatics.

Thirty years on, it is still fondly recalled, and both men acknowledges the role the other played in making each man a household name.

Wiggins is already a massive name, one that transcends cycling, a minority sport for which he has done immeasurable good.

In winning the Tour de France last year, the 33-year-old from Eccleston in Lancashire did what no other Briton has done before, claimed the yellow jersey from under the noses of the great and the good of cycling – strong nations like France and Italy, USA and Australia.

That he won gold in the Olympic time-trial 10 days later – the seventh Olympic medal of his remarkable career – merely served to heighten his status as one of the most recognisable names, and best-loved characters, in all of British sport.

Supporting him to glory at the Tour de France last year to the extent that he finished second himself, and a bronze behind him in the time-trial, was Froome, who, understandably now has designs on being the No 1 man himself.

Initially the belief was that Wiggins, after a year that was unlikely to be surpassed in terms of accolades and memories garnered, was going to cede the leadership of Team Sky’s Tour ambitions to his trusty lieutenant for this year’s centenary race, which begins in Corsica on June 29.

Wiggins publically stated as much when he said the Giro d’Italia was the race in his sights.

That three-week trek around Italy, the first of the three annual grand tours, began yesterday. A little aside here would be a pat on the back for Sheffield’s Adam Blythe, 23, who is in the BMC team that will support Cadel Evans’s bid for the pink jersey.

But, as he left the country last week, Wiggins fired a thinly-veiled warning to Froome and the Team Sky heirarchy that he felt it within his capabilities to not only attempt to win the Giro, but also the Tour later in the summer.

Froome, never a man to court publicity or exposure, responded through a statement that said he had been “reassured by the management at Team Sky that I have their full backing and at no time has the leadership of the Tour team been in question”.

The flames were fanned by Froome’s partner, Michelle Cound, who made the case for her man on Twitter, the social networking site.

“Chris & Brad on the same start line, in the same kit? Mmmmmm... doubt it!” was how she worded her first tweet.

“To those claiming that this Wiggins/Froome thing is some sort of publicity stunt, you are wrong.” came next, before she closed with, “I look forward to @TeamSky clearing up this mess (ASAP) #fedup .”

Imagine those closest to Coe and Ovett having a voice piece like Twitter to lob hand grenades from afar all those decades ago. #ifonly

Pundits and experts have since had their say on the matter, while there is even some suggestion that Dave Brailsford, Sky and British cycling’s guru, may take his team into the defence of their Tour title with the position of leader still up for grabs.

For a planner as meticulous as Brailsford it is unlikely he will want to go into a race with as many intangibles as the three-week pedal through France with a potentially explosive question mark hanging over his team.

For a sport where individuals reign supreme largely thanks to the sacrifices of their team-mates, it is a fascinating dynamic between Wiggins and Froome.

For their part, they have not clashed and as far as we know, could find it all amusing.

But with interest in cycling at an all-time high in Britain, and here in Yorkshire as we eagerly await the Grand Depart of next year’s Tour, it is a fascinating story that is set to simmer nicely all summer long.

If anything, it has at least stopped people talking about Lance Armstrong and the shadow he has cast over the sport.

The next three weeks in Italy will be fascinating and could go a long way to deciding who begins the Tour de France as the Sky cyclist bequeathed with the honour of riding for yellow later in the summer.

Never has the Giro d’Italia taken on so much interest in Britain.

If Wiggins dominates the race and adds the Giro to his over-crowded mantlepiece, he may just persuade Brailsford and company that he is the man to ride for the maile jaune in France.

If he does not win, and struggles, then Froome, 27, should hold his position.

In cycling, there is no room for two team leaders, just as there was no room for two big names in Wiggins and Mark Cavendish last year, with the latter having to leave the British dream team after just 12 months to find a team that suited his needs.

Both Wiggins and Froome think Sky should sing to their tune.

Watching them both try and prove it on the roads of Italy and France over the coming months will be fascinating.