Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) came here to ride one kind of Giro d'Italia and now finds himself in another one altogether. Second place behind a rampant Egan Bernal atop Campo Felice on stage 9 bore out what his sparkling showing at San Giacomo in midweek had already suggested. The Italian, perhaps to his own surprise, is in the hunt for a place on the podium in Milan.
On the steep, dirt road that led to the summit on Sunday, Ciccone was the only rider who could match Bernal’s first, fearsome acceleration with 550 metres to go. Once Bernal shifted into the big ring, Ciccone knew that the Colombian was travelling to a place he simply could not reach, but when he glanced over his shoulder, he realised that he was still going to come closer than anyone else.
Ciccone spilled across the line in third place on the stage, seven seconds down on Bernal and just ahead of Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech), with the rest of the pink jersey group splintered behind them.
In the overall standings, he moves up to fourth overall, 36 seconds behind the new maglia rosa Bernal.
"I tried to follow him, but he was really strong," Ciccone said. "When I saw him shift into the 53 ring, I tried to keep with my tempo but for sure he was on another level today. I think he is the best guy here and it will be hard to fight with him in the coming days."
Before the Giro set off from Turin, Ciccone declared himself ‘il jolly’ – the joker – in Trek-Segafredo’s deck, where Vincenzo Nibali was the wounded but still undisputed king. He raced accordingly, throwing himself onto the offensive on the road to Canale, Sestola and San Giacomo in the opening week. Yet, despite frittering away precious reserves in those moves, he has still had the strength to stay in the vicinity of Bernal on each uphill finish to date.
His fifth place at San Giacomo on stage 6 seemed to be something of an epiphany. As a shivering Ciccone was helped into a jacket by team doctor Emilio Magni at the finish line, he had words of admonishment for himself" "If only I hadn’t wasted all that energy earlier…"
The change in register was already apparent in Guardia Sanframondi on Saturday evening, when Nibali effectively anointed Ciccone as Trek-Segafredo’s leader. On the two-part haul towards Campo Felice on Sunday, there were no crowd-pleasing attacks from Ciccone in his native Abruzzo. Instead, as he explained on RAI’s Processo alla Tappa programme afterwards, he spared himself for that final haul up the dirt road to the finish.
"It’s true that I came to the Giro with other objectives in mind, and not the GC. So for that reason, I attacked a lot in the first week, to find a bit of morale and condition too, seeing as I hadn’t raced in a while," said Ciccone, who missed last month’s Tour of the Alps due to a knee injury.
"Then I understood that I was going quite well, that I had good condition, so in the last few days I’ve raced a bit differently, with an eye to saving myself a bit. I wasn’t burning myself out deliberately, I just had other intentions in mind. Now let’s say that things have changed a bit in the last few days."
While Ciccone continued his rise up the overall standings at Campo Felice, it was another testing afternoon for Nibali, who is racing the Giro after breaking his wrist in a training crash in mid-April.
The Sicilian lost contact once the pink jersey group fragmented in the final kilometre, and he came home 35 seconds down, leaving him 16th overall at 2:12. Given the circumstances, Nibali continues to limit his losses well, but it seems difficult to imagine that he can, at 36 years of age, conjure up another third-week miracle.
It leaves Ciccone, 10 years Nibali’s junior, as Trek-Segafredo and Italy’s best hope of a podium finish in Milan, though he has never finished higher than 16th overall in his six Grand Tours to date.
On Sunday evening, he was reluctant to commit to any specific goal, noting that the top end of the overall standings was still tightly packed.
"My Giro changed a bit already after the stage at San Giacomo the other day, but I’m still going day by day," Ciccone said.
"Obviously I don’t want to waste any energy, I have good condition, but I’m not going to put big pressure on myself. I know I’m going well, and I need to ride intelligently. Nobody knows how far I can go, so I’m keeping my feet on the ground and enjoying the moment."
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