When Dario Cataldo was recruited by Trek-Segafredo last winter to serve as Giulio Ciccone’s key supporting rider at the Giro d’Italia, he didn’t need much by way of induction. He had, after all, been following Ciccone’s career since the very beginning.
Nine years separate Dario Cataldo and Giulio Ciccone in age, being 37 and 27 years old respectively, but their Abruzzo hometowns of Lanciano and Chieti lie barely 40 minutes apart. When Ciccone began racing as a juvenile in the colours of ASD Intesa Bike, his first coach was Cataldo’s father Michele.
By that point, Cataldo was already in the professional peloton with Liquigas, but he stayed loyal to his roots. His career developed – moves to QuickStep and Sky followed – but he kept a close eye on the riders under the tutelage of his father back home in Abruzzo. One undersized kid drew his attention.
"When I turned professional, Giulio was there in the juvenile team where my father had coaching," Cataldo told Cyclingnews. "Initially, Giulio was a boy who hadn’t developed physically like the others. In fact, the other lads were taller and stronger, and he was still a bit smaller than the others, so we all called him Giulietto.
"We joked about that a bit, but when I went to see some races, I saw some signs in spite of everything. He had this determination that was out of the ordinary. I knew then that once he would be very strong once he matured physically, and I said that to the coaches he had at the time. Once he was a junior, he started to give some important signals and then even more as an amateur."
Ciccone, for his part, grew up with Cataldo as something of a role model. While Abruzzo had produced notable riders in the past – Vito Taccone and Danilo Di Luca above all – the southern region was hardly a heartland in the manner of Tuscany or the Veneto. Cataldo was living proof that The Show was not beyond Ciccone’s reach.
In 2016, Ciccone joined Cataldo in the professional peloton, and he marked his passage to the paid ranks by winning a stage of the Giro at Sestola in the colours of Bardiani-CSF on his debut season. Three years later, Cataldo and Ciccone would each win stages on the Giro. The older man soloed to victory in Como, while Ciccone won over the Mortirolo two days later.
By then, Ciccone had graduated to the WorldTour with Trek-Segafredo, and the pair were already discussing the prospect of racing on the same team, but that winter Cataldo instead transferred from Astana to Movistar. They would have to wait two more years to be united under the same banner.
"Dario brings a lot of extra value to the team, and I really wanted him to come here," said Ciccone, who has been shepherded by Cataldo through the opening week of this Giro. He arrives in his native Abruzzo on Sunday in 21st overall, 2:32 down on the interim maglia rosa, his teammate Juan Pedro López, and 50 seconds behind Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco), the best placed of the favourites. "It’s been a very positive Giro so far," said Ciccone.
The twin ascents of the Passo Lanciano and Blockhaus on stage 9 should utterly redefine the general classification, and the stage on home roads marks a pivotal moment in Ciccone’s Giro. The departure of Vincenzo Nibali last winter has seen Ciccone take on the role of outright GC leader at Trek-Segafredo, and this race is the most important of his career thus far.
Now 27, Ciccone’s best Grand Tour result is 16th in the 2019 Giro, though he looked set for much better at last year’s race only for a crash to force his abandon in the third week. He endured a similar fate at the Vuelta, and he arrives at this Giro still seeking confirmation of his ability over three weeks. Cataldo placed 12th at successive Giri with QuickStep around the same age before repurposing himself as an elite gregario at Sky. He knows that this is a crucial moment in Ciccone’s development.
"Giulio certainly has much better numbers than I did at the same point in my career, and he has all the support of the team and staff," Cataldo said. "When I was at QuickStep, I certainly can’t say that I was lacking in support, but it was a team that was much more oriented towards the classics and maybe there wasn’t someone with experience in stage races to give me the right advice. Maybe I made mistakes in preparation and so on, so that’s an extra motivation to give everything for Giulio now."
On Sunday, Cataldo will be Ciccone’s guide on the first true mountain stage of this Giro, which brings them through the Apennines roads where they forged their talent as teenagers. The Passo Lanciano is perhaps the emblematic climb of the region, while the Blockhaus is Abruzzo’s most significant contribution to Giro lore.
The Giro came to this area a year ago on the corresponding stage when Ciccone set the tifosi’s hearts aflutter with second place behind Egan Bernal at Campo Felice. In this most open Giro, he will set out on Sunday with designs on a similar kind of display here. "Like always, I think there’ll be a great public out there," Ciccone said. "This is the first real test of the Giro."
Cataldo, once his role model, will now be by his side, their cycling lives coming full circle. "It was already special to be in the peloton together," Cataldo said. "So to find ourselves in the same team chasing big objectives at the Giro d’Italia is very beautiful."
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Barry Ryan is European Editor 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.