News feature, May 12, 2008
Although just 24 years of age, Italian cyclist Riccardo Riccò has already finished sixth overall in his home tour. He cracked the top ten last year and also won the 15th mountain stage to Auronzo (Tre Cime di Lavaredo).
This year Riccò is back to have a real shot at taking the Maglia Rosa to Milan. He's shown that he is ahead of last year's schedule by winning the first road stage of the Giro d'Italia, Sunday's tough stage 2 207 kilometre leg from Cefalù to Agrigento.
Riccò was one of six riders who edged ahead of the rest on the final climb, then he outsprinted Danilo Di Luca (LPR Brakes), Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas), Paolo Savoldelli (LPR Brakes) and Joaquin Rodriguez (Caisse d'Epargne) to the line.
"It is not important to have friends in cycling." - Riccò has ruffled a few feathers in his career so far, and may ruffle a few more during this Giro d'Italia.
As could be expected, he was delighted with the outcome. "This morning I wanted to win the stage," he stated. "Benitez helped me in the last kilometres and then Piepoli. I was felling well so my team-mates helped me. We made a great sprint and it was good to beat Di Luca because it shows I have great condition."
He had a frustrating start to the year and is consequently happy to take his first victory of 2008. "I have been very unlucky since the start of the season," he explained. "First of all, I crashed with Valverde on the second stage of the Tirreno-Adriatico. Then I crashed again on the stage to Montelupone, and again in the Vuelta a Pais Vasco, 300 metres from the finish line. After that, I had a flu just before the Classics.
"I also crashed today when [David] Zabriskie went down. Luckily it was not too serious. In fact, maybe that helped, as it perhaps made me more hungry for the win."
Last time round Riccò had double Giro champion Gilberto Simoni to give him advice and also to deflect some of the pressure. Simoni has moved on from the Saunier Duval Scott team, racing now with the Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Androni Giocattoli squad, but remains close with Riccò. He was asked if it was strange without his former captain.
"I miss him and I don't miss him, because now I have the chance go for myself, to be the leader of the team. Sometime I speak to him on the telephone. We are still friends, we still have a good relationship, but now I am the leader here.
"I have Piepoli who is riding very well...today he and all the team helped me. I have a very good squad behind me."
Chasing Giro success
Although he's still a young rider, he appears to embrace the responsibility of being the number one. Confidence boosted by his victory, he was happy to lay out his ambitions for the race and let the media know he was aiming for pink in Milan.
"I think I am fresher than last year. I am more tranquil," he said. "I feel I am not yet at one hundred percent but I feel good. I think that's the case because I beat Di Luca and Rebellin and you have to be strong to do that. I think I will be at my best in the mountains, I will fight for the Giro there.
"I know all the hard stages of the race. I went to check them in recent months. For me, the most difficult stage is the 15th, the Marmolada. But it could be good for me, because last year I won the 15th stage."
He knows it will take a big effort, though. "It will be difficult as well because the day before and the day after, you don't have one metre of flat road. It's always up and down, so there will be three very difficult days.
"The next difficulty in this Giro will be the Pescoconstanzo stage because it is quite difficult, and I think it will finish with a sprint by the leaders, like in Montevergine last year."
Given that he is young but already a proven winner, he was asked what he still needed to develop as a rider. "Well, I think you are at your best at 27 - 30 years old. Let's see at the end of the Giro what I lack.
"For one day races, I think I am okay. For the time trials in stage races, I think I have improved. But I also think here that the other riders are not so strong in the time trial. Only Leipheimer, Contador, Klöden are very strong, but the other riders are not as good.
"I saw that Contador was going well today, but not great. We will pay attention to Nibali and Pellizotti but the mountains are very tough, and the third week will be decisive. We will have to control Di Luca."
On the podium early
He's scored a psychological victory over the other front runners, and also picked up extra seconds. That could all count as the race progresses.
"It is true that to win today I made an effort, but also those behind me did the same," he said. "When you have the chance to win you have to do so. Also, the 20 seconds I got with the bonus are important. It was also good for my confidence. I can see I am ready and I feel good. I am in good condition, and so I am more tranquil now."
Riccò is known as one who has ruffled quite a few feathers already in his career. He is said to be one who has many enemies in the bunch; perhaps that word is a little strong, but he admitted that he doesn't see the need to stay on the right side of riders purely for the sake of doing so.
"It is not important to have friends in cycling," he stated, showing either strength of character or a deal of stubbornness. "You have to fight with the others, the best have to win. Only your team-mates are your friends in the bunch. I have no friends during the race."
However, he was happy with a gesture at the finish. "Danilo Di Luca congratulated me after the stage. That was good, I am happy. We are very respectful towards each other. Perhaps he was not so happy not to win, but it is normal to give congratulations. It was a good gesture and I have a good relationship with Danilo Di Luca."
If things go to plan, Di Luca and the others might be congratulating him on more occasions during the race. He's started off on a good level and plans to improve, to achieve more success between now and Milan.
"I prepared myself for the Giro and I am sure I have the possibility of doing something," he stated. "It could go well, it could go badly, but I have already won a stage and I have less pressure now."