Post-race press conferences have been rather perfunctory affairs for the opening days of this Giro d’Italia but the running time was generously extended when Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) landed Italy’s first win of the race in Viggiano at the end of stage 5. With extra column inches to fill, the home media simply kept asking questions and a delighted Ulissi could probably have talked all night
Ulissi had been earmarked as one of the outstanding favourites beforehand given his victories on similar uphill finales at Milan-Turin and the Giro dell’Emilia at the tail end of last season. In the final kilometre, he showed poise that belied his 24 years to time his effort to perfection, and came past Julian Arredondo (Trek) and Cadel Evans (BMC) within sight of the line.
"It’s an important win because it’s the first Italian one of this Giro and it’s important because I beat some champions on a hard finale at the end of a tough day in the wind and rain," said Ulissi, who was caught behind a crash ahead of the penultimate climb with 17 kilometres remaining, but entered the final haul to the line safely placed near the front of the bunch.
"Katusha did great forcing in the final kilometre but I stayed in fifth wheel because I didn’t want to get exposed to the wind too early. I was behind [Nairo] Quintana, but when he couldn’t hold the wheel, I had to come around him. [Przemyslaw Niemiec] helped to move me up and then I took [pink jersey] Michael Matthews’ wheel before unleashing my sprint."
For the local media, the decline and fall of Italian cycling from its 1990s heyday is an ongoing concern, and it was inevitable that Ulissi would be asked to both assess its current status and be lauded as a symbol of his regeneration. "It’s not easy to match Bartoli, Bettini and all those champions. It came easily to them because they were champions," Ulissi said. "Still, our young sprinters were up there in the first few days of the Giro, but it’s normal that you need a bit of time to improve."
Ulissi, incidentally, is coached by one of those serial winners of Italy’s recent past, Michele Bartoli, who was linked to the Operacion Puerto investigation after his retirement in documents reproduced by Gazzetta dello Sport in 2007. Bartoli is now the preparatore of the Lampre team, and Ulissi credited his fellow Tuscan for supplying him with a dash of self-belief.
"I need to believe in myself a bit more. I’ve improved a lot in that respect in the past two years thanks to having Michele Bartoli as my preparatore," Ulissi said. "He helps me a lot as a coach, but he has also given me a lot of confidence. Sometimes I’m beaten before I start and I must improve in that respect. I need to believe more in my characteristics and continue to improve.
"I think I’m behind where I want to be in my development. But I turned pro very early and I’ve won sixteen races, including two Giro stages and other WorldTour races. I can only think about improving more, and the important thing is that my development is calm and consistent."
2014 and beyond
Ulissi’s 2014 season began with a bang with a stage victory at the Tour Down Under and a win at the GP Camaiore on home roads in Tuscany but he fell short at the Ardennes classics. He blamed that setback in part on a stint of altitude training beforehand – "I was preparing not just for the Ardennes, but for the Giro, Tour de Suisse and national championships too," he said – but admitted that he had become discouraged too easily.
"The Ardennes classics certainly suit my characteristics and in future I think I can do well," he said. "I thought I’d be competitive this year but I wasn’t in my best physical condition and I came into them a bit discouraged because of that. I can be a dickhead like that sometimes."
Ulissi’s victory was the second Giro stage of his career but the first time that he had crossed the line in first place. He was awarded victory in Bergamo in 2011 when Giovanni Visconti was declassified for pushing him during a fractious sprint finish. Ulissi has developed considerably since then, however, and on hilltop finishes in particular, the former junior world champion is a redoubtable performer.
Thursday’s stage to Montecassino finishes atop a category 2 climb and that could well provide Ulissi with an early chance to add to his running tally at the corsa rosa. "If only! I came to this Giro with the aim of winning a stage and I don’t want to stop here," he said. "But I don’t know the climbs in detail in this Giro beyond what I’ve seen in the roadbook. I’ve seen that tomorrow is an interesting day, and a long stage too. But we’ll have to see how the sensations are tomorrow."