Third at the GP Montréal in 2016, Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates) certainly had cause to be considered among the favourites for this year's edition, but it would be fair to say that pre-race conversations in Canada were mostly focused elsewhere. Against world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and defending Montréal champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), it was always going to be a challenge for Ulissi to better last year's result. What's more, Ulissi had never actually won a WorldTour one-day race.
Considering how well he's performed as a punchy stage hunter at the Giro d'Italia – with six career stage wins to his name – he's been seen as an outsider for the Ardennes and elsewhere, but has never quite pulled off that big victory. Sunday in Montreal, however, he crossed his fingers that things wouldn't be quite so predictable as in the finale of Friday's GP Québec and took a flyer of a late attack.
Minutes later, he crossed the finish line ahead of fellow escapees Jesús Herrada (Movistar) and Tom-Jelte Slagter (Cannondale-Drapac) to nab that elusive WorldTour one-day victory.
"For an Italian rider, winning in the Giro d'Italia is a dream but for sure, I was looking for an opportunity to win a Classic race, and the Grand Prix Montréal was the perfect race for me," Ulissi said after the victory.
"Last year I was third after two great champions, Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet. This year, I tried to be a little bit braver. I tried to attack earlier, tried to go for the victory, and I got it."
It helped that he brought both form and an abundance of motivation into the race. While some riders treat the Canadian GPs purely as a late-season tune-up ahead of the World Championships and Il Lombardia, Ulissi noted in the post-race press conference that Montréal was a major target in and of itself.
"I was really confident. After the Tour de France, my first Tour de France, I worked really hard on trying to get my condition to the max," he said. "This race was a big season goal. My teammates did a really good job, Valerio Conti and Marco Marcato, they worked really hard pulling back the breakaway. In the finale, I knew I was fast in this kind of finish so I played my card and then everything worked out."
With Worlds looming, he could have hardly picked a better time to come good.
Italy has yet to name their Bergen Worlds roster, one that should ultimately contain the full allotment of nine riders with the country enjoying its typically strong position in the world rankings. The long, lumpy parcours in Norway could see a traditional sprint, with the likes of Elia Viviani (Sky) maybe the nation's top choice for a bunch kick, but a more selective race seems perhaps more likely.
Italy has no shortage of options for that scenario, with Quick-Step's versatile but fast-finishing Matteo Trentin fresh off of four stage wins at the Vuelta a España, but Ulissi has proven handy on very challenging profiles in the past. He rode a quieter summer, second at Italian Nationals and second on stage 15 of the Tour de France but winless since February's G.P. Costa degli Etruschi – but a victory in the last event on the WorldTour calendar before the Worlds road race is sure to turn heads.
"I haven't talked to [Italian selector] Davide Cassani about the World Championships yet," Ulissi said when asked about his Bergen aspirations, "but if he had questions my answer was this."