There was a time when the Giro d'Italia gruppo was filled with Italian riders capable of winning on the punchy finales that tend to litter a race staged in a country dotted with hilltop towns. A decade or more ago, men like Damiano Cunego, Danilo Di Luca and Stefano Garzelli seemed to clash swords on a regular basis in the heart of medieval citadels or the shadow of religious sanctuaries.
Enrico Battaglin (LottoNL-Jumbo) revived that particular tradition by claiming a finisseur's victory on the gently rising finishing straight in Santa Ninfa on stage 5, just 24 hours after placing third on a similarly explosive uphill finale in Caltagirone.
It was the third Giro stage win of the Italian's career after he scored a replica victory in Serra San Bruno in 2013, and then won atop Oropa the following year, but despite stepping up to WorldTour level in 2016, he has never confirmed his potential in the Classics, and has struggled to repeat his feats on the Giro. Fellow countrymen like Diego Ulissi and Sonny Colbrelli have shown the same sustained flashes but never quite ignited on the world stage.
"For the Grand Tours, Vincenzo Nibali and Fabrio Aru have certainly shown themselves to be at the top level. Classics riders like me, on the other hand, have had our highs and lows, and we don't really have a rider who is a point of reference in that sphere. There have been moments when we've done well and moments when we've been missing," Battaglin said when asked to assess the state of Italian cycling.
"The beacon of our movement is definitely Nibali, who has been a protagonist on every kind of course, and everybody else is in his shadow a little bit. But I think there are a lot of interesting young riders emerging, and so the future is very promising."
There was a pregnant pause when Battaglin was asked to name those riders, and the first he cited was that of Davide Formolo (Bora-Hansgrohe), who at 26 is already too old to qualify for the best young rider classification.
"For the Spring Classics, there are riders who are more or less my own age [28 – ed.] like Ulissi and Colbrelli," Battaglin continued. "Of course, there's also Gianni Moscon, who is very young and has already shown himself in races as diverse as Paris-Roubaix and Il Lombardia."
Battaglin enjoyed a lofty reputation as an amateur with the Zalf-Fior squad, and marked his passage to the professional ranks in August 2011 by claiming a youthful victory at the Coppa Sabatini ahead of Davide Rebellin and Giovanni Visconti. During his tenure at Bardiani-CSF, Battaglin underscored his potential with his early brace of Giro stage wins, but he was also beset by the lingering effects of the heavy crash he endured on the road to Bardonecchia in the 2013 Giro. Although he shone in support of Steven Kruijswijk at the 2016 Giro, for instance, Battaglin also went four years without a win between his triumph at Oropa in 2014 and Wednesday's victory in Sicily.
"I had a lot of physical problems going back to 2013 when I broke four ribs in a crash at the Giro. I had a lot of problems getting back to what I was before, and my sensations were always changing, I'd be good one day, bad the next," Battaglin said.
"I've worked to get back to what I was, and this year, I felt on the right track during the spring, even if the victory was obviously lacking. I hope from today on I can show what I'm really worth."
Battaglin's victory in Santa Ninfa made amends for his near-miss at Caltagirone, where he led out the sprint in the final 250 metres, but was overhauled by stage winner Tim Wellens (Lotto Fix All) and Michael Woods (EF-Drapac) within sight of the line. Rather than dwell on his disappointment, the 28-year-old looked to accentuate the positives of his performance, and he made no mistake in the finishing straight on Wednesday, powering past Visconti to claim the spoils
"I made a small error in the finale yesterday, but that's racing. I got caught behind and had to make two sprints in the final 800 metres, so I just wasn't sharp enough to take the victory," Battaglin said. "But I knew I had good legs, and I was able to get the win today."