Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) has long been considered Italy's next great Classics rider and admitted after his second stage victory at the Giro d'Italia in Asolo that he is finally able to produce the performances needed to live up the lofty expectations.
Ulissi won stage 4 to Praia a Mare with an aggressive solo attack on the final climb. In the hills above Asolo, stage 11, he surged across a seven-second gap just four kilometres from the finish and then beat Andrey Amador (Movistar) and Bob Jungels (Etixx-QuickStep) with a well-timed sprint finish. His victory was perfectly executed, confirming a new-found confidence thanks to his age, experience and even the help of a mental coach.
"I think I've improved a lot as a rider; now I try to be in the action, both on my own and with the team in the finale. That means that when I go for it, I go for it with the plan to strike," Ulissi explained.
"In the past I often raced passively; in the early years of my career I'd hesitate and wait for the key moment of the race. Now I try to be in the thick of it, without being on the receiving end. The team is backing me up too and so were all more motivated. Today I spoke to Sacha Modolo for just three seconds and we decided he'd wait for the sprint and I'd go on the attack."
Ulissi will be 27 in July and has quietly matured in recent times, conquering his own fear and insecurities with the help of a mental coach, who he preferred not to name. He was banned for nine months in 2014 after apparent overuse of his Salbutamol asthma inhaler and suffered personal tragedy last summer when his wife had a miscarriage.
"Last year was not an easy year and when you stay out of racing for a while it is difficult to find your form quickly. My wife Arianna was about to have our second child but the pregnancy was interrupted. You need a clear mind to do good things in our sport but it's not always easy. There's the person behind the rider and that counts a lot.
"I'm not afraid to reveal that I've been working with a mental coach since last winter. I think that I've perhaps over thought things in the past but you've always got to try to improve things if you want to succeed. I think l've also developed physically; I'm almost 27 and so it's natural that you gain experience and that you race better."
Ulissi's success at the Giro d'Italia has already caught the eye of the Italian national coach Davide Cassani, with Ulissi likely to line up in Rio alongside Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru for the very hilly road race. He will likely other hilly stages in this year's Giro d'Italia and then carefully prepare for the Rio Olympics in August.
"For sure I'd love to be there, even to work for the team," Ulissi confirmed, showing further confidence in his ability and role in the five-rider Italian team. "I've spoken to Cassani and I m sure we'll talk again. I think I've shown that even on very hard course that I'm up there, for example I was there yesterday on the stage to Sestola. The Olympic road race is also a one-day race and that changes a lot. It's a one off race and so you can give it everything just like I did today."
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