The real work was only just beginning for Damiano Caruso, but something within him felt compelled to acknowledge a job well done. Six kilometres from the summit of Alpe Motta, as Pello Bilbao peeled off, Caruso couldn’t help but reach out a hand to pat his Bahrain Victorious teammate on the back in thanks for shepherding him this far.
Caruso had begun the penultimate day of the Giro d’Italia with the simple aim of fending off third-placed Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange). Now, thanks to some quick thinking on the descent of the Passo San Bernardino and a determined shift from Bilbao on the Splügenpass, he was suddenly a live threat to Egan Bernal’s pink jersey.
The remarkable forcing of another deluxe gregario, Bernal's Ineos Grenadiers teammate Daniel Martínez, would ensure Caruso’s advantage was limited to 24 seconds at the summit, but he had the considerable consolation of dropping breakaway companion Romain Bardet (Team DSM) with 2km to go to claim stage victory and all-but cement second place when the Giro concludes in Milan on Sunday afternoon.
"It wasn’t planned at all, this attack," Caruso said when he took a seat in the press conference truck afterwards.
"Sometimes things come about like this by chance. You need a bit of madness, which we had today, but also a bit of intelligence, because our race was impeccable. We saw DSM in front on the descent of the San Bernardino and with Pello I said, ‘On a day like today, you never know what might happen, so let’s follow them'."
For Caruso, it had long been a Giro where anything could happen. When Bahrain Victorious leader Mikel Landa crashed out in the opening week, the Sicilian was given the liberty to pursue his own result, but in professional cycling, freedom is not, as Kris Kristofferson would have it, just a word for nothing left to lose. The longer the race drew on and the further Caruso rose in the overall standings, the higher his stakes became.
Riders who habitually win races for a living tend to deflect expectations by talking about the 'process' and 'taking things day by day'. Caruso, a career domestique, offered a refreshingly clear appraisal of the burden of leadership. The tale of a gregario in paradise may be a romantic one, but professional cycling is a results business too.
"The biggest difference between being a gregario and a leader is the pressure that you have to get a result," Caruso said. "When you’re the leader, you know everything hinges on you. As a gregario, I had a job to do, but nobody would ever ask me why I hadn’t won. That changed on this Giro, but I didn’t. I just threw myself into this challenge, which was above all a challenge for myself.
"After the stage on the gravel at Montalcino, I was still up there and I started to think to myself, why settle? I’ve spent a life settling. Why not try to risk? What did I have to lose? Why not look for something more?"
A triumph in Milan
In an interview with Cyclingnews two years ago, Caruso admitted that he had "lost the instinct of winning" during a career spent in the service of others. On Saturday, RAI feted his victory with an on-screen graphic bearing the legend 'A champion is born', though he shrugged off the tag when he was interviewed behind the podium shortly afterwards.
"I think I’m excellent professional and a good rider. I’ve never considered myself a champion because I’ve never won like a champion," said Caruso. "But today, I had my day like a champion, yes."
At 33 years of age and with a dozen seasons as a professional behind him, this Giro might prove to be the zenith of Caruso’s cycling life, but he knows, too, that it lends a new dimension to his career. His performances this race might, for instance, secure him a leading role in the Italian squad at the Tokyo Olympics. He will surely be a protected rider at his next Grand Tour.
"Tomorrow, it’s not that Caruso will suddenly become a winner, but these three weeks have taught me a lot," he said. "Now I realise fully what I can do in future. It’s true I’m 33 years old, but I can still improve."
With a deficit of 1:59 on Bernal ahead of Sunday’s final time trial, it seems unlikely that Caruso’s position can improve over the 30.3km from Senago to Piazza del Duomo.
"For me the Giro could end today," Caruso admitted, but his prowess against the watch suggests he might claw back some time on the Colombian. The ride into Milan will not be a simple lap of honour for Caruso.
"I’m going to give everything, everything I’ve got left. There would be no sense in calculating, in thinking about different hypotheses," Caruso said. "Tomorrow is a day of closure. And however it goes, it will be a triumph for me."
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