Like the majority of riders in the Giro d’Italia this May, Damiano Caruso came to the race not with the intention of riding for himself, but for his Bahrain Victorious team leader. Having been a loyal domestique throughout his career, it was a role he knew well, and of the 14 Grand Tour starts of his career so far, most had come in the service of someone else.
In his first start, at the 2011 Vuelta a España, Caruso was riding for Vincenzo Nibali. A year later he was at the Giro riding for Ivan Basso. The majority of the Tours de France he rode during his four years at BMC were to back up Richie Porte or Tejay van Garderen.
He was brought to the Bahrain team in 2019 to link up with his former teammate, Nibali. Now, at this year’s Giro, he was there for Mikel Landa, the Spaniard who came to the race with the intention of winning pink himself.
But nothing is ever guaranteed in bike racing and now, two days out from the Giro finish in Milan, second-placed Caruso finds himself in the unexpected position of being two stages away from stepping onto the podium in his home Grand Tour, after Landa crashed out on stage 5.
The 33-year-old Sicilian typifies the role of a domestique in cycling. A reliable, hard worker who has only ever won twice in his career; a stage of Coppi e Bartali back in 2013 and the 1.1-ranked Circuito de Getxo-Memorial Hermanos Otxoa last year. Results-wise, Caruso doesn’t have much on paper that would be classed as success in a sporting career. But then success in cycling manifests itself in different ways, and Caruso’s job is more often than not done when others around him perform well. It’s selfless work.
Indeed, at the 2019 Giro, despite being within a few kilometres of challenging for a Giro stage win, team orders crackled through his radio ordering Caruso to sit up and wait for his leader, Nibali, who had attacked from a group behind. “Cycling isn't only about winning; that's a story worth telling, too," Caruso told Cyclingnews afterwards.
But when a leader crashes out early in a Grand Tour, their teams often struggle to make an impact on the race. It’s understandable; you come to the Giro, Tour, or Vuelta, with one plan - to try and win the race overall - and when that disappears with the rider forced to exit the race, cobbling together a 'plan B' is doable, it just might not always be as effective. Usually, domestiques are given freedom to chase stage wins - think Michal Kwiatkowski and Richard Carapaz’s one-two on stage 18 of the Tour last year, after Egan Bernal abandoned.
Yet since Landa left the Giro early in week one, Caruso has been a constant presence at the front of the race. He sat in 11th on GC on stage 5, the day the Spaniard left, and has gradually crept up the top 10 since. On the Passo Giau, on stage 16, in the freezing cold and pouring rain, the Italian was one of just two riders who were able to keep anything close to pink jersey Bernal, after he attacked. It was symbolic, perhaps, that one of the best rides of his career came on a day when the weather meant the cameras were unable to broadcast most of the action. Caruso is a rider whose best work often goes unseen.
Caruso has three times finished in the top 10 overall in a Grand Tour. He was ninth in the 2014 Vuelta, eighth in the 2015 Giro and 10th in the Tour last year. But in all of those times he’s never been closer than 12:08 to the race win.
But having finished fourth on stage 19 atop Alpe de Mera, Caruso now sits 2:29 behind pink jersey Bernal with only a mountain stage and final day time trial to go. Simon Yates sits another 20 seconds behind him, but beyond that, there’s a gap of 3:12 to the next rider in fourth place. Barring disaster, Caruso is in with the best shot of his career at getting on the podium.
Then again, at last year’s Giro, Tao Geoghegan Hart came to the race to support Ineos Grenadiers’ leader Geraint Thomas. But just over two weeks after the Welshman crashed on stage 3, and didn’t start the race the next morning, the Briton found himself going into the Giro’s final weekend in the fight for pink. We all know how that story ended.
Sophie Hurcom is the deputy editor of Procycling magazine.
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