On Sunday morning, Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious) hadn't even started coming down off the previous day's high. Even when he flipped on the television and saw the images of his victory the previous afternoon at Alpe Motta, it didn't seem real. It was like watching something that he had dreamt rather than lived.
"This morning, when I opened my eyes, I said, 'Did it really happen?'" Caruso said on Piazza Duomo on Sunday evening. "Then on the news, I saw a clip of me winning, and I said, 'Did I really win it like that? It was all magic."
Caruso's reverie didn't last long. The schedule didn't allow it. He still had one stage of the Giro d'Italia to complete, one last push before he could clamber onto the podium. Second place was effectively guaranteed before he started Sunday's final time trial, but the fixture still had to be fulfilled.
The Sicilian began the day just shy of two minutes down on maglia rosa Egan Bernal (Ineos) and almost 90 seconds clear of Simon Yates (BikeExchange). There was little to be gained and even less to be lost.
"I kept my focus for today and I finished it out," said Caruso, who, for the record, shaved half a minute off his deficit to Bernal to finish the Giro second overall at 1:29.
"I took no risks. I just pushed it in the straights, but I didn't want to take any chances on the corners. There was no point in taking risks. It all went according to the plan."
Caruso's podium finish was in nobody's plans and nobody's predictions before the race. He began the Giro as Mikel Landa's key gregario in a strong Bahrain Victorious squad, but he was thrust into the unfamiliar role of team leader when the Basque was forced out by a crash in the opening week.
After moving provisionally onto the podium on the gravel of Montalcino on stage 11, Caruso paused in the finish area and confessed to reporters that he was entertaining the idea of trying to stay there all the way to Milan. "Dreams can sometimes come true," he said then.
As the race drew on, it became apparent that Caruso's ambition was not misplaced. On the Passo Giau on stage 16, he resisted Bernal's onslaught better than anyone, and he never faltered in the final week, not even when other, more fancied names were beginning to flag.
On the final weekend of the Giro, he even briefly threatened to win the race outright when he escaped on the descent of the Passo San Bernardino in a group with teammate Pello Bilbao. Ineos scrambled well enough to limit his advantage, but Caruso had the considerable consolation of dropping Romain Bardet (DSM) near the top of Alpe Motta to solo to stage victory.
Fittingly for a man who has spent the bulk of his career as a gregario, the day's defining image was not Caruso's victory salute beneath the Arrivo banner, but the grateful pat he gave to Bilbao after he swung off on the final climb.
"I've realised that was maybe the most beautiful part of my win," Caruso said. "I didn't think it would have so much resonance, I just did what I felt like doing in that moment. But as a working man myself, I knew exactly what his sacrifice meant."
It remains to be seen how Caruso's job description will change as a result of this Giro. After shifting pianos of behalf of others for so much of his cycling life, Caruso showed that he, too, had virtuoso qualities on this Giro. This might have been, as he repeatedly said, a once in a lifetime opportunity, but that doesn't mean he won't be handed the chance to lead again.
"I don't know we'll see in the future," he said. "It's true that I'm 33 years old now, but this Giro has given me a bit more confidence in what I'm doing and in what I can do in the future. It's a boost."
The future was a hazy concept as shadows lengthened in Milan on Sunday evening, and Caruso was still trying to process the present. As he made his way through the mixed zone after the podium ceremony, he found himself reaching for the same words. "These were three incredible weeks," he said. "It's an indescribable emotion. And it was unthinkable before the Giro."
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