A lot has changed since Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) bounded to two stage wins at the 2014 Giro d’Italia, a haul that was hailed at the time as confirmation that the coming man of Italian cycling was finally delivering on the promise he had shown in landing back-to-back world titles as a junior.
Ulissi would go on to test positive for salbutamol at that Giro, of course, eventually serving a reduced nine-month doping ban that allowed him to return in time to take another victory at the corsa rosa last season.
On Monday, the 26-year-old punched his way clear on the stiff, 18 percent slopes of the Fortino and then held off an elite chase group on the drop into Praia a Mare to claim yet another Giro stage win – the fifth of his career – but he is finding that the bar has now been raised a little higher as he approaches his prime.
No sooner than Ulissi had cracked open the celebratory prosecco on the podium than some quarters of the Italian press were placing his victory in an unflattering context. Tuttobici acknowledged that the Tuscan had impressed in bridging across to the leaders and then attacking on the final climb, but also pointed out that he had already fallen short of expectations in the Ardennes Classics.
“Ulissi is like Italian cinema, which maybe fills our theatres, but doesn’t manage to get a nomination on Oscar night,” grumbled Tuttobici.
“I’ve been going well all year, I’ve been very consistent this season,” Ulissi said of a campaign that began with a strong showing at the Tour Down Under. After top 10 finishes at Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne, however, he could only manage 55th at Liège-Bastogne-Liege.
Giro d'Italia: Ulissi wins stage 4
Giro d'Italia stage 4: Finish line quotes
“I had a lot of conviction going into the Classics, and I’ve started to show that I can last the distance. It’s just a shame that it didn’t go well for me at Liège, but I came into this Giro in great form and I was ready for a stage that suited me like today.”
Rather than wait for the unclassified but viciously steep final ramp of the Fortino, Ulissi opted to jump aboard a 10-man move that formed with a little over 20 kilometres remaining. With his teammate Valerio Conti driving on the front, Ulissi began the final climb with more than 30 seconds in hand on the group of overall favourites.
“It was a very hot day and that made it more selective than we expected. The pace was high all day too and the finale was very unpredictable,” Ulissi said. “Beforehand, I was planning to stay in the peloton until the last climb but it would have been difficult to get away there. The move came about instinctively when I saw Conti in the group out in front. He did great work for me when I got across and I have to thank him.”
Once on the Fortino, only Stefano Pirazzi (Bardiani-CSF) could offer any resistance to Ulissi’s stinging accelerations, but the Lampre man forged clear alone ahead of the summit and then managed – just – to stay clear on the sinuous 9-kilometre drop to the line, eventually coming home five seconds ahead of Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin).
“The descent was into a headwind and the first part was on wide roads, so the advantage was with the gruppo behind me,” Ulissi said, adding words of thanks for his trainer, double Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner Michele Bartoli.
“I showed today that I’ve matured mentally. I was ready to risk losing in order to win. But like Bartoli says, it’s good to be inventive.”
Ulissi now moves up to third overall on general classification, 20 seconds down on restored leader Dumoulin, but he downplayed the idea that the maglia rosa might be within his reach before the end of the Giro’s punchy opening week.
“I’m not thinking of the pink jersey,” he said. “It’s just something that might come about naturally. I’ll just have a go on every stage that suits me. But today, I was only thinking about the stage win, not the jersey.”