Before Giulio Ciccone faces his first examination as a team leader at this season’s Vuelta a España, he will have three weeks in finishing school at the Giro d’Italia under the tutelage of Vincenzo Nibali.
The Italian’s climbing ability has carried him to two stage victories at the Giro over the years, as well as to two days in the yellow jersey at the 2019 Tour de France, but this season marks a new departure for the 26-year-old, who has been handed leadership of Trek-Segafredo at the Vuelta.
"Honestly, I don’t feel pressure," Ciccone told reporters in a video conference this week.
"For sure, it’s a big responsibility, that’s true. But I’m young and I have a lot of opportunities. And I’ll have another Giro with Vincenzo first, so I can study a bit more. I’ll have another year – well, almost a whole season – to improve my skills, for example in the time trial. So I have time and I don’t have a lot of pressure."
Ciccone’s best display over three weeks in a Grand Tour came on the 2019 Giro, when he finished in 16th place overall, though his focus in that race had been on carrying the maglia azzurra of best climber to the Arena in Verona. He lined out for the 2020 Giro as part of Nibali’s supporting cast, but a coronavirus diagnosis in September had ruined his preparation and he was forced to abandon after two weeks.
This May, Ciccone will again line out in a supporting role at the Giro, where both Nibali and Bauke Mollema will lead the line for Trek-Segafredo. Given that Nibali’s stated ambition to ride with "more freedom" in 2021, it would be a surprise if Ciccone wasn’t handed some liberty of his own on selected days at the corsa rosa, though he will seek to absorb some lessons from the Sicilian and Mollema along the way.
"For me, it’s very important to have Vincenzo and Bauke close to me in the Giro, because I can see something more. I can use that Giro to study and then maybe in the Vuelta, where I will be alone, I can use the things I learned," said Ciccone, who acknowledged that the Vuelta could mark a watershed moment in his career.
"It’s the first time that I will try to go for GC, but I think it’s also a real opportunity. I need to understand if I can do it or not. After the Vuelta, I will need to take some decisions about my career."
The 26-year-old’s predisposition towards attacking has carried him to his biggest successes thus far, but he is aware that he will need to curb at least some of those instincts when he takes up a leadership role in Spain.
"Of course, I need to change my approach. If you go for the GC, you need to conserve and keep your energy day by day," he said. "But if I am up there, then maybe I will try something. I don’t stay always on the wheel."
Ciccone began 2020 with victory at Trofeo Laigueglia in the colours of the Italian national team and he rode strongly on home roads when the campaign resumed in August, but his coronavirus diagnosis in September conditioned the remainder of his season. After struggling through the first fortnight of the Giro, he spent over a month off the bike, and he had another, shorter lay-off during the winter when he underwent nasal surgery to repair a deviated septum.
It was a year to forget, but Ciccone insisted that it would not have any impact on the season ahead, which he is due to start alongside Nibali at the Vuelta a la Comunitat Valenciana (February 3-7) and Volta ao Algarve (February 17-21).
"Then I go to Tirreno-Adriatico, which is very important. It’s the first test of the season," said Ciccone.
The first, but not the last.
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