Italian emerges to win stage and move up to fourth at Giro d'Italia
As Mauro Santambrogio emerged from the gloom atop the Jafferau to win stage 14 of the Giro d'Italia, his fluorescent yellow Vini Fantini-Selle Italia kit jarred with his surrounds just as his string of results through the opening months of the season has jarred with the tenor of his career to date.
A valued gregario during his time at Lampre and BMC, Santambrogio has been a man transfigured since he joined Vini Fantini-Selle Italia during the off-season, claiming victory at the GP Larciano and competing on a new level on the climbs at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Giro del Trentino.
On the steep road out of Bardonecchia on Saturday afternoon, the 28-year-old showed his new confidence by having teammate Danilo Di Luca set the tempo at the front of the group of favourites and then by matching maglia rosa Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) when he accelerated with two kilometres to go.
Once it became apparent that Santambrogio had Nibali's measure, it was inevitable how the spoils would be divided - stage honours for the former and a tightened grip on the pink jersey for the latter.
After a lengthy delay descending from the summit after the podium ceremony and doping control, Santambrogio explained his transformation to reporters in his post-race press conference. A domestique at BMC, Santambrogio said that he has simply risen to the challenge of leadership at Vini Fantini.
"I'm really happy to have found a Mauro who had practically disappeared in the last few years and this is thanks to Luca Scinto and Angelo Citracca, who showed such belief in me by signing me as leader," Santambrogio said. "I don't know what the next aims for Mauro will be. I've found myself again and now we'll see from here.
"It was my choice to pick a small team to rediscover the Mauro I really am and I've found a family here. In terms of character, I'm quite withdrawn and shy, but I feel cosseted at Vini Fantini and I'd gladly stay here."
Mauro, of course, twice went missing briefly from BMC's active roster - in April 2010 and again in May 2011 - due to his implication in the Mantova-based doping investigation into the links between pharmacist Guido Nigrelli and the Lampre team. On the road, however, he said his problem was that he was primarily deployed in a supporting role.
"I was lost before because I was in strong teams like Lampre and BMC," Santambrogio said. "Having big champions and captains like Evans, Gilbert, Hushovd and Ballan meant that I was always working for others and couldn't show my real value."
Indeed, Evans tried and failed to follow the winning move when it went clear in the final two kilometres but Santambrogio said that he took no additional satisfaction from outgunning his former leader.
"Sure, it gives me a lot of morale, but I owe a lot to Cadel too," he said. "I was close to him when he broke his elbow at the Tour de France and I learnt how to prepare a Grand Tour with him. And I can show that now that I'm at a team that gives me the status of leader."
Santambrogio's stage victory also sees him move up the overall standings to fourth, 2:47 off Nibali and just one second off a podium berth. His best finish in a Grand Tour to date was 58th in last year's Vuelta a España and he was coy about his overall aspirations.
"I came to this Giro with the first objective of winning a stage. The general classification was secondary and this win caps off the work and sacrifices I've made since November," he said. "I'm fourth now so of course I have some thoughts now for the general classification but we'll see as we go along. I've gone well in shorter stage races so far this year but I don't know if I can hold on for three weeks as I've been a tutto since February."
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