As the leading group trundled onto the dirt road on the Alpe di Poti on stage 8 of the Giro d'Italia, and Matteo Montaguti (AG2R La Mondiale) surged off the front, Gianluca Brambilla (Etixx-QuickStep) wondered if he knew something that the rest of them didn't.
"When I saw Montaguti attacking, I thought to myself: ‘Either he knows this dirt road or he's gone too hard," said Brambilla, who initially opted to follow his own rhythm even when Alessandro De Marchi (BMC) set off in pursuit, before eventually catching, passing and dropping his fellow countrymen.
Hurtling down the sinuous descent back into Arezzo, Brambilla had only the vaguest of concrete information about the time gaps to his erstwhile companions – "I heard something about 20 seconds" – yet he had a sense, too, that he was about to pull off an unlikely double heist of stage win and pink jersey.
By the time the road flattened out, whether Brambilla realised it or not, stage victory was effectively assured, and he crossed the line 1:06 clear of Cannondale's Moreno Moser. After wheeling to a halt past the finish line, he didn't have long to wait before the timekeepers could confirm that he had dispossessed Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) of the maglia rosa for good measure.
"The pink jersey was always my dream but to find myself wearing it, well it feels strange," Brambilla said in the post-stage press conference, where a request to provide a "blow by blow" account of his victory was met with an answer almost four minutes in length.
A third place finisher in Strade Bianche in March after a similarly pugnacious showing, Brambilla set out on stage 8 with the knowledge that he had an aptitude for the terrain in the finale, but harbouring doubts that he would be given the kind of latitude he needed given his relative proximity to Dumoulin on the general classification.
"I had a plan in mind but I knew it would be difficult to pull off because I was close on general classification, less than two minutes down," said Brambilla.
Undeterred, it was Brambilla who ignited the break of the day by scrambling down the wet, twisting descent out of Assisi so quickly that nobody could stay with him. When the Italian sat up and turned around, he found twelve apostles in pursuit, including his teammate Matteo Trentin.
"In the finale, Matteo sacrificed himself for me. When I told him I felt good, he went flat out on the front of the break to make sure we stayed clear. For 20 kilometres before the climb, he pulled very hard," Brambilla said. "I knew that it was a dirt road climb, but I didn't know exactly what kind of dirt road it was going to be."
Now in his third season at Etixx-QuickStep, Brambilla has been enjoying his best campaign in their colours to date, beginning with a victory at the Challenge Mallorca in February and continuing with a series of solid displays over the spring.
Though a consistent enough climber to place 13th at last year's Vuelta a España and at the 2012 Giro, Brambilla is aware that his hold on the maglia rosa is a temporary one, as he leads Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) by just 23 seconds and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) by 33, even though he may put fiercer resistance in Sunday's Chianti time trial than one might expect.
On similarly rolling terrain in Barolo wine country two years ago, after all, Brambilla was one of four Etixx-QuickStep riders to place in the top ten on the stage, won by his then teammate Rigoberto Uran.
"I finished fifth in the Barolo time trial, and it was a very similar stage to tomorrow – up and down all the time with a lot of curves and a lot of rain, which might be the case tomorrow too," he said. "I'll be setting out last and I'll have the time checks from the others. I'll give it everything. But if I lose the jersey, it won't be a tragedy. There's still two weeks of the Giro to go."
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