Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) is part of a new generation of riders that is hoping to finally end Italy's drought of success in the Classics during the Ardennes week.
The 23-year-old Tuscan is a former double junior world road race champion and has shown his class with a stage victory at the Giro d'Italia and overall victory at the recent Coppi & Bartali stage race. He and Damiano Cunego lead Lampre-Merida's hopes for the hilly Classics after Filippo Pozzato's disappointing cobbled Classics campaign. Italian cycling is also hopeful that Moreno Moser (Cannondale) can show his talent for the hilly Classics in the next seven days.
"There are some good young riders but nobody should expect miracles. But we're up there along with riders like Sagan and Gilbert, or not far behind them," Ulissi told Gazzetta dello Sport as he prepared for the Amstel Gold Race and the Ardennes week.
"A rider like Sagan comes along every 50 years. He came through the Italian system but unfortunately he was born in Slovakia. Otherwise we'd be talking about a golden age for Italian cycling."
Ulissi has a fast finish and can climb well but admits the Amstel Gold Race is not his preferred Ardennes Classic.
"Fleche-Wallonne suits me a lot better even if I'm intrigued by Liege-Bastogne-Liege. There's a natural selection in both races, something that doesn't happen at the Amstel Gold Race," he said.
"It's my third Amstel Gold Race. I crashed out in 2011 and was dropped in 2012 but I finished. It's not my favourite Ardennes Classic, you need to ride it a lot to know the secrets and memorise the route. Saving energy and holding position is an art with all the twists and turns. It is also a big factor for success."
"I'll be important to save energy for 200km by being well positioned in the peloton, and then you have to be at the front for the last 50km, even if it's stressful. My form is pretty good. I went deep on two stages at the Tour of the Basque Country, finishing fifth and eighth. I'm looking for a podium place in at least one of the Ardennes races."
Thinking of the world championships
Ulissi won't ride the Giro d'Italia or the Tour de France, opting to focus on the world championships in Florence, just an hour from his home on the Tuscan coast. He lives close to Italian national coach Paolo Bettini and seems a perfect rider for the hilly course and selective finale.
"I'm riding the Tour of Switzerland and the Vuelta. It hurts to miss the Giro but you've got to make some tough choices sometimes," he explained.
"I've had a heavy spring of racing and the second part of the season will be busy too. I've already seen the course for the worlds. It's tough but it's good for attacks. I already know the last short climb near the finish by heart…"