If Diego Ulissi met expectations by landing a puncheur’s win at Viggiano earlier in the week, he exceeded them by claiming the first real mountain stage of the Giro d’Italia at Montecopiolo. And the difficult task of downplaying expectations began almost as soon as the Lampre-Merida man he settled into his seat at the winner’s press conference soon afterwards.
Ulissi surprisingly managed to hang tough on the steep ascent of the Carpegna – the Giro’s maiden category one climb and cherished training road of Marco Pantani – and crested the summit at the back of the 20-man group of general classification contenders. After maintaining a watching brief on the final haul to Montecopiolo, where the race failed to break up any further, he jumped after Robert Kiserlovski in the final 400 metres and cruised past him within sight of the line.
"I wouldn’t say this is a better quality win than the one in Viggiano because that was a hard stage with wind and rain, and you had to have a lot of strength in the finale," Ulissi said. "Today, it was more about having resistance because the Carpegna was tough. I was the last one over the summit in the group of favourites and I was glad there was a long descent because it gave me a chance to catch my breath. I’d seen on Google maps that the last climb went up almost in steps, with chances to recover in between, although I knew the last 700 metres were very tough."
In Viggiano on Wednesday, Ulissi outlined that the next step in his development would be an improved showing in the Ardennes classics in 2015, but given that he is now the best-placed Italian rider on general classification – he lies 6th, 1:43 down on new maglia rosa Cadel Evans (BMC) – the local press wondered if and when he might take the giant leap forward and become a contender in three-week races.
"It’s quite unlikely right now. In the future, I don’t know, maybe my physical characteristics will change and I’ll manage to be competitive over three weeks on tough climbs," Ulissi said, before adding: "But the fact is that [Damiano] Cunego and [Przemyslaw] Niemiec were our captains for the general classification and now ... I don’t know."
Indeed, both Cunego and Niemiec were dislodged from the Evans group on the Carpegna, and rolled across the line three and seven minutes down, respectively. Somewhat poignantly, Cunego, who emerged from relative obscurity to win the Giro ten years ago but has never scaled such heights since, acknowledged at the finish that his 24-year-old teammate Ulissi was now "the man of the moment."
"That makes me very happy because he was one of the last champions we’ve had," Ulissi said of Cunego. "He believes in my possibilities and he’s important for our team especially for the young guys, because he can pass on so much and he knows how to race."
As for his general classification ambitions at this Giro, Ulissi was pragmatic in his outlook. "I’ve already won two stages and I’ll try to stay up there but I put in a huge effort just to stay in contact on the Carpegna today," he said. "I’ll take it day by day. We’ll see."
That other great Italian obsession, the world championships, seems a more realistic target for Ulissi in 2014. He has landed three of Italy’s five WorldTour victories so far this season and new national manager Davide Cassani was on hand in Montecopiolo to witness his victory.
"As an Italian, I’m already thinking about it. The Worlds are the most important event, they wrap up the whole season," said Ulissi, who already wore the rainbow bands as a junior. "I think I’ll go to see the course in Ponferrada in June after the Italian championships, and I’ll see if it’s suited to my characteristics."
All of that, of course, is in the future. For now, for Italian cycling at least, Ulissi is the man of the moment.