Giro d’Italia: Ulissi claims first win following return from suspension

Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) is a particularly loquacious speaker in the afterglow of victory. After winning at Viggiano at the Giro d'Italia 12 months ago, for instance, the Tuscan's press conference ran to close to half an hour, and he was in a similarly expansive mood in Fiuggi on Friday afternoon following his victory on stage 7 of this year’s race.

The win was a particularly resonant one for Ulissi given that it was his first since serving a nine-month ban for a positive test for Salbutamol at last year's Giro, and his long scream on crossing the line echoed Marco Tardelli's famously primal celebration in the 1982 World Cup final.

To complete the footballing effect, Ulissi was mobbed by a huddle of Lampre teammates moments later, and in the mixed zone, he grinned broadly when asked if he would prefer another Giro stage win or a Champions League victory for his beloved Juventus next month.

Ulissi's usual stream of consciousness slowed to trickle at one point in his winner's press conference, however, when he was asked if he had ever established precisely how almost twice the permissible limit of Salbutamol had made its way into the urine sample he provided following stage 11 of last year's Giro.

"I don't want to talk about it anymore," Ulissi said. "I'm looking at the present. I want to talk about today and today I won the stage."

Ulissi is resident in Lugano and his case was heard by the Swiss Olympic Committee. Following a battery of tests last summer in a bid to prove his innocence and a fleeting return to racing at the Coppa Bernocchi in September, Ulissi was eventually handed a backdated nine-month ban, and returned to racing at the Tour of the Basque Country last month.

Short of his best in the Classics, Lampre-Merida manager Brent Copeland told Cyclingnews earlier this week that he feared the Giro may have too soon for Ulissi to be competitive in the opening week, but after falling short in Liguria and his native Tuscany, he found his legs on the longest stage of the race.

"I have to be honest: from how I started I was a bit worried, my sensations weren't what I wanted them to be," Ulissi said. "But some people, like my coach Michele Bartoli, told me that it was more of a mental problem than a physical one. My legs weren't lacking but I had a bit of fear about coming back racing and I was worried that it would take a long time to get back to my best condition. But today I said it didn't matter if I finished 9th or 10th, the important thing was to try again."

The Lampre-Merida team set out its stall as though leading out a sprint for Sacha Modolo – indeed, the race speaker mistakenly called the stage for Modolo at the finish – but Ulissi was given the freedom to try to replicate his showing on similar uphill finales in the past. A vicious acceleration took him clear of Juan José Lobato (Movistar) and Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge).

"It went more or less as planned," Ulissi said. “Originally I was going to base my sprint around [Philipp] Gilbert, but then I changed my mind when I saw Orica-GreenEdge were set up well and I took Simon Gerrans' wheel. Then I decided to go from distance because I was worried I'd get shut in, but fortunately my legs held out."

At this juncture twelve months ago, Ulissi was hopefully talking up his chances of leading the Italian team at the World Championships in Ponferrada, only for his positive test at Savona to rule him out of the reckoning. An inquiry from the local press about the Richmond Worlds was as inevitable as the questions about Juventus.

"I think I gave a great sign for the Worlds today by winning a stage after 260 kilometres of racing. If people think I'm lacking endurance, then I think I showed them something today," Ulissi said. "I spoke a lot with [Italian national coach Davide] Cassani when I was away from racing, and he certainly tried to lift my morale."

Cassani's predecessor as Italian coach, Paolo Bettini, was also on hand at the finish in Fiuggi. Like Ulissi, Bettini hails from the province of Livorno, and he heralded the 26-year-old as his successor when he spoke to reporters by the podium.

"Bettini and Bartoli are people I saw as being way up there – unreachable," Ulissi said. "But in terms of my characteristics, I resemble them. They were two fuoriclassi and I'd just like to get close to what they did."

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Barry Ryan
Head of Features

Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.