The last time Valerio Conti (UAE Team Emirates) was here, within touching distance of the maglia rosa on the Gargano Peninsula, his day ended in the cruellest disappointment. Two years ago, when the Giro d'Italia visited Peschici on stage 8, Conti led the way on the stiff climb towards the finish only for his wheels to slip from under him on a hairpin bend.
The pink jersey slipped through his grasp then, and Conti must have felt an uneasy sense of déjà vu on the road to San Giovanni Rotondo on Thursday. Part of a 13-man move that escaped early on stage 6, the Italian was virtual race leader for much of the day and he was the only man able to follow the in-form Fausto Masnada's stinging attack on the climb of Coppa Casarinelle in the finale.
Conti was straining to follow his fellow escapee's wheel with 20km remaining when a dog scurried across his path. For a split second, it seemed the maglia rosa might slip through his grasp once again, but he managed to evade the canine interloper and stick to his task. They would stay clear to the line, where they shared the prizes: the stage win went to Masnada and the pink jersey, finally, belonged to Conti.
"Honestly, I never thought of that negative day from two years ago, I was only thinking positively," Conti said. "I was very positive in the finale. I knew that I had nothing to lose and everything to gain."
Conti knew as much even before the start of Thursday's mammoth stage, which brought the 2019 Giro to its southernmost point. Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), in the lead since the opening day in Bologna, let slip beforehand that he was willing to rent out his maglia rosa and the Slovenian found no shortage of willing bidders in a frantic opening 90 minutes of racing.
When the break finally forged clear, Conti looked at the dozen riders with him and realised that he was the highest placed among them in the overall standings. He began the stage 1:59 down on Roglič, and when the break's buffer extended beyond five minutes, he dared to dream that the precious garment might be his.
"I knew Roglic intended to let the jersey go," Conti said. "The whole peloton knew that he wanted to let the jersey go, but then the whole peloton also wanted to get in the break. It took an hour and a half for the break to go away but I managed to get in it and the jersey finally came."
Conti's tenure in pink comes amid a trying week for his UAE Team Emirates squad. On Tuesday, Juan Sebastián Molano was sent home from the Giro after he recorded "seemingly unusual physiological results" in the team's internal monitoring programme. A day later, Kristijan Đurasek was provisionally suspended by the UCI after he was implicated in the Operation Aderlass blood doping inquiry.
'Masnada was going like a motorbike'
The biggest success of the 26-year-old Conti's career to date was his stage victory at Urdax on the 2016 Vuelta a España, when an ambling peloton allowed the early break a winning margin in excess of half an hour. On Thursday, Jumbo-Visma didn't offer quite the same latitude as Movistar did on that occasion, though Conti and company still had more than 7 minutes in hand on the bunch on the run-in.
It meant that Conti's rivals for pink were now his fellow escapees rather than Roglic, and he opted to mark the in-form Masnada on the final climb. Winner of two stages at the Tour of the Alps, Masnada duly powered away with 28km to go and Conti – just – was able to follow.
The two found common cause on the run-in, just as they had done when discussing the previous night's Coppa Italia on RAI television after the stage. Masnada, a native of Bergamo, saw his beloved Atalanta beaten by Lazio. "I'm as sorry about it as he is," joked Conti, a tifoso of Lazio's fierce rivals Roma.
"Fausto was going like a motorbike," Conti said. "He went really hard. He's a really strong rider. I had to ride furbo, as they say, I had to be smart. I wanted the jersey above all. I wanted to win too, but Fausto was too strong."
Conti holds a buffer of 1:41 over Giovanni Carboni (Bardiani CSF) on general classification, while Roglič and the contenders for final overall victory are all grouped outside the top ten, more than five minutes behind. The Italian climbs well enough to have placed 24th overall at last year's Giro, and may well entertain thoughts of retaining the jersey beyond Sunday's time trial in San Marino and into the second week.
"It's possible, I don't have a fixed day in mind," Conti said. "I'll keep going until my legs, heart and soul say stop. I want to keep it."