By Shane Stokes in Agrigento
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 race, Sunday's tough 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.
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."
To read the full winner's feature, click here.