Michele Scarponi gave the Astana team its first road race victory of the 2017 season with a finely timed effort at the end of stage 1 of the Tour of the Alps, the victory finally breaking a lengthy dry spell on his palmares.
The 37-year-old Italian had not won a race since the 2013 GP Costa degli Etruschi. Before that, his previous wins included the overall Giro del Trentino – as the Tour of the Alps was known until this year – but even then he did not win a stage. The record books show Scarponi also won the 2011 Giro d'Italia, but that was awarded to him later after Alberto Contador was disqualified for doping. For an actual hands-in-the-air stage win, you'd have to count back to March 12, 2011 when the Italian won stage 4 of Tirreno-Adriatico.
Scarponi served a three-month ban for working with Dr Michele Ferrari in the winter of 2012 and had since accepted the role of loyal mountain domestique to Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru. With Aru now out of action due to his crash and knee injury, Scarponi has been dragged back into the spotlight and given a leadership role. He quickly showed he still has what it takes.
Scarponi hit out with 300m to go and pushed a huge gear on the uphill finish at to Hungerburg, holding off Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ).
With Scarponi set to replace Aru as Astana team leader for the Giro d'Italia, the victory was a special moment for everyone at Astana, including directeur sportif Stefano Zanini, who watched the race from the finish line and raised his arms in celebration just like Scarponi.
"A few years after winning the Giro del Trentino, I've finally managed to lift my arms up and naturally I'm happy about it," Scarponi said later in the stage winner's press conference.
"This is also my first win while at the Astana team so I really wanted it. We've achieved little if not nothing so far this season. Sometimes it happens but now we've finally won and broken through. When you don't win there's a risk it hits your morale, but we kept working hard even though we didn't win. We need this win for both the Astana team and for me."
Scarponi is one of the jokers in the Italian peloton and his videos of his parrot sitting on his shoulder during training riders have gone viral. However he also sensitive and intelligent.
"It's been a while, so I want to make a few special dedications," he said after his victory. "First to my twin sons Giacomo and Tommaso – who often ask me when I'm going to win. And of course, this win is also for my wife, too, before I forget to mention her."
"I also want to dedicate it to the regions of central Italy that were hit by the earthquakes last year. I'm from central Italy and my house shook, too. This is for them and a sign of my support for them. It's also for Astana because we deserved it and worked hard for it."
Scarponi was quickly given the mantel of Astana team leader for the Giro d'Italia when Aru was diagnosed with cartilage damage following his training crash. However, he was cautious about his chances of keeping the fuchsia-coloured leader's jersey at the Tour of the Alps and is hopeful that Aru can make a rapid recovery.
"I haven't won for a while and we're only at the start," he warned. "Before we get to Friday it is going to be a long and hard race but we'll rest up with this leader's jersey and nobody in the team wants to give it up. We'll fight hard to the end."
"As everyone knows, Fabio crashed on a corner. That changed our race here and probably the Giro for him and us. He's receiving treatment and trying to see how he recovers. We'll continue to work for Tour of the Alps and the Giro and see what happens."
Scarponi has his boots ready for eventual snow
There is a slight risk of snow for Tuesday's stage at the Tour of the Alps from Innsbruck to Innervillgraten along the Val Pusteria. The riders are due to climb the Brennero Pass (1385m) and then descend gradually to 754m before climbing to 1253m at the finish. Provisions are in place if the riders, teams, UCI judges or race organisers decide to active the Extreme Weather Protocol but the stage is due to be raced as scheduled.
Scarponi quipped that he is ready for any adverse conditions.
"I have the right surname in Scarponi (Scarponi means boots in Italian). Maybe we could cancel all the climbs and so I can keep the jersey right to the end of the race…" he joked.
"In the truth, the forecast was not great today but then it was not too bad. If it snows high up and then you have to descend, it's not great but I'm sure the people who are responsible for the race will make the right decision."
Whatever the weather, Scarponi confirmed that his Astana team would ride to defend his race lead. He revealed he would be watching Thomas and Pinot for possible attacks.
"Thomas and Pinot both controlled the race with their teams today and that's a sign they were feeling good. Pozzovivo was always there too," Scarponi pointed out.
"Of course, I was up there too. I was curious to see how I felt because until you race you never know how you're going to go. Now I hope to get even stronger."