ISCHIA, Italy (AP) — Bradley Wiggins didn't need to be recruited to the Giro d'Italia with a $1 million financial commitment like Lance Armstrong did. Last year's Tour de France champion came to race the Italian classic purely out of his own personal desire.
Giro director and RCS Sport general director Michele Acquarone told The Associated Press in an interview Sunday that he didn't even have to ask Wiggins.
In fact, Acquarone first heard about Wiggins' plans from two-time Giro champion Ivan Basso.
During the Tour of Britain in September, Basso sent Acquarone a message saying that Wiggins had told him casually that he was interested in racing the Giro. Acquarone forwarded the message to Dave Brailsford, the general manager of Wiggins' team, Sky, to ask if there was any truth to it.
"From that point on we stayed in contact with Sky and slowly but surely we realized that the possibility was becoming greater and that he was coming," Acquarone said Sunday, shortly before Sky won a team time trial to take control of the race and move Wiggins up to second overall.
The Tour of Britain came just after Wiggins had followed up his Tour title with a gold medal in the time trial at the London Olympics.
"So it was really him who wanted to take on the challenge," Acquarone said. "I think he said to himself, 'I've won what I've needed to win. Now what other romantic, attractive races are out there that are worth winning?'"
In 2009, Armstrong came out of retirement and raced the Giro for the first time at a big price — $1 million for his Livestrong cancer foundation.
"We didn't pay Armstrong but it was a way to get Armstrong here," said Acquarone, who wasn't the Giro director at the time but was already the general director of RCS Sport, the company that controls the race. "I remember Angelo (Zomegnan, the former Giro director) calling me and asking, 'Michele, is it possible? For him to come there needs to be a big involvement with Livestrong.' So we made a big deal with his foundation."
While the U. S. Anti-Doping Agency stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour titles last year and banned him from elite sport for life, the American still had his reputation intact back in 2009. Still, he was 37 then and no longer in his prime.
Wiggins, meanwhile, is coming off the best season of his career, and it's rare when the Tour winner builds his next season around the Giro, which he is racing for the fifth time.
"This is completely different. It makes us realize how much the Giro is growing. I'm just as pleased with the presence of Cadel Evans," Acquarone said, referring to the 2011 Tour winner from Australia.
Along with defending champion Ryder Hesjedal of Canada, Dutch contender Robert Gesink and 2008 Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez of Spain, there is a decided international accent to this year's Giro.
Last year, when Joaquim Rodriguez of Spain and Thomas De Gendt joined Hesjedal on the final podium, it marked the first Giro without an Italian in the top three in 17 years.
"That was a message that something is changing," Acquarone said. "I'm friends with guys like Basso and (2011 Giro winner Michele) Scarponi, so it was upsetting to see them in difficulty but I realize that if we want more visibility for the Giro then that helps."
This year, there is also a Chinese rider in the race for the first time — Ji Cheng of the Argos squad.
"The Giro is no longer the Giro of Italians," Acquarone added. "It's the Giro of the entire world now."
For the record, Acquarone said that neither Wiggins nor Sky were receiving any sort of special appearance fee.
"These days, the agreement we made with the teams association means we deal directly with the teams and it's the same rules for everyone," he said.
Looking ahead, next year's Giro will begin in Northern Ireland and Ireland with stages in Belfast and Dublin.
Then in 2015, organizers are hoping to bring the start home to Milan — and possibly the finish, too — to coincide with Expo 2015 being held in the city. But that hasn't fallen into place yet — which is strange because RCS is based in Milan.
"It will be a very big year for Milan and there's been a lot of talk that Milan and the Lombardy region wants the start, but as of today we haven't received an official offer," Acquarone said.
There's no set rule about alternating the starts between Italy and abroad from year to year, as has been the case recently with starts in the Netherlands in 2010 and Denmark in 2012.
"That's nice but it's not obligatory," Acquarone said. "Half of Europe wants the Giro. There have been a lot of offers."