All’s well that ends well. Giulio Ciccone endured a nervous moment when the Vuelta a España peloton was split by a mass crash 11km from Albacete, but the Italian succeeded in staying upright and then bridging back to the front group. On arriving at the finish, meanwhile, he learned that his Trek-Segafredo teammate Kenny Elissonde had inherited the red jersey after previous leader Rein Taaramäe (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux), who lost time in the incident.
“I was stopped behind the crash, and I lost some places, but I passed on the right-hand side, and I was up there in the final so I didn’t lose time and I’m OK, I’m safe,” Ciccone said after pausing to congratulate Elissonde past the finish line.
“It was a really stressful final but we are happy because we have the leader’s jersey with Kenny and also because we came through safely, because today was a really dangerous stage. Tomorrow I think the Vuelta will change, when we start with the uphill finishes.”
Ciccone already caught the eye on the Vuelta’s early mountaintop finish at Picón Blanco on stage 3, when he came home alongside the pre-race favourites Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) and Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers), on a day when several other general classification contenders conceded early ground. Ahead of Thursday’s uphill finish at La Cullera, he lies seventh overall, 32 seconds behind Elissonde.
“The start of the Vuelta has been quite good for me,” Ciccone told Cyclingnews at the start of stage 5 in Tarancón. “The first test in the mountains went well for me. Obviously you’re always a bit doubtful before the first summit finish, especially when it comes as early as the third stage. But I can’t complain, I can say the condition is good and up to now it’s all going as planned.”
Ciccone’s uncertainty was amplified by the fact that this is the first Vuelta of his career. While a rider preparing for the Giro d’Italia chooses from a fairly fixed menu of weeklong stages as he builds steadily towards May, the Vuelta’s late-summer start allows for a range of à la carte options.
The Italian’s road towards this Vuelta was complicated still further by his participation in the Tokyo Olympic Games. He opted to prepare for the expedition to Japan with the Settimana Ciclista Italiana in May, and he then lined out at the Clàsica San Sebastian and Circuito de Getxo on his return to Europe.
“That was exactly the doubt, because there wasn’t a ‘logical’ preparation, so to speak, especially for people like me who went to Tokyo, which sort of interrupted the build-up towards the Vuelta,” Ciccone said. “It was a bit different to the usual, but my condition is good so we’ll see how I’ll respond in the coming days.”
Since last winter, Ciccone had planned to make his first concerted tilt at the general classification of a Grand Tour on this Vuelta, but he almost inadvertently found himself vying for a high finish at May’s Giro after producing a remarkable sequence of displays in the early phase of the race. While Vincenzo Nibali, hindered by a pre-race crash, struggled to find his form, Ciccone lay sixth overall at the beginning of the third week, only to be forced out of the race by a crash of his own on the road to Sega di Ala.
“I came back to a good level this season, and I’ve done what the team and I wanted to do, because I took another step forward and showed more consistency in a Grand Tour,” said Ciccone.
“At the Giro, we were unlucky because I had to go home a few days before the end because of a crash, but in any case, my level of performance was up there with the best. Now we’ve set the objective at the Vuelta of fighting for a high overall finish, so let’s see.”
Nibali’s presence in May meant that Ciccone entered the Giro as a self-described ‘wildcard’ and he had the freedom to go on the offensive early and often during the race’s opening phase, but his role is a different one here. With Nibali set to return to Astana this winter, Ciccone has been earmarked as Trek-Segafredo’s GC leader of the future. This Vuelta marks his first formal test, and he acknowledged that he might have to curb at least some of his attacking instincts.
“Now I’m racing in a more ‘logical’ way, so to speak, and trying to save energy as much as possible,” Ciccone said. “But, obviously, if the chance arises to go on the attack on a couple of days, that’s still my mentality.”
Elissonde will look to defend his slender five-second advantage over Roglič on Thursday’s short but steep finale at the Alto de Cullera, and Ciccone will have to be vigilant too, though the following day’s trek to Balcón de Alicante seems more likely to provoke frissons among the podium contenders.
“Tomorrow will be nervous, above all, because the final climb is short so everyone will want to take it from the front. But I doubt the gaps will be big. The following day is more of a GC day,” said Ciccone.
“The level is very, very high. There are four or five riders who are going very, very well right now. Roglič, obviously, and the trio from Movistar too. It will be a nice battle, because I think there are quite a few riders who have come in here with a very high level of condition.”
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.