Diego Ulissi's determination to put a poor World Championships showing behind him as quickly as possible was rewarded on Sunday with an impressive - and record-equalling - seventh stage win in the Giro d'Italia.
After out-powering Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Mikkel Honoré (Deceuninck-Quick Step) at the summit finish in Agrigento, Ulissi's seventh Giro stage win has put him on a level footing with Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) as the two riders with the highest number of Giro stage victories currently taking part in the race.
Ulissi's latest Giro d'Italia triumph has also seen him rebound from his poor showing at Imola, the Worlds being a frustrating exception to the rule to what has been a remarkably consistent year of top 10 results for the Italian uphill finisher, as well as overall victory and two stage wins in the Tour de Luxembourg.
The UAE Team Emirates racer blamed his non-participation in the Tour de France for his poor showing in a Worlds with more than 5,000 metres of vertical climbing. However, on much less hilly terrain in Sicily, Ulissi was able to show a clean pair of heels to a Tour participant as renowned as Sagan.
"I had hoped Worlds would [have] worked out differently, and I was ill after it, I was worried I wouldn't be able to recover for the Giro in time. But now I'm back where I should be," the 31-year-old told reporters after stage 2.
"It was a very nice victory, one of the most beautiful of my seven stage wins in the Giro. I was really afraid of Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) and Sagan, but my teammate Valerio Conti did a great job putting me on the front just when I needed to be there."
From there to the finish, it was plain, if painful, sailing for Ulissi, whose final lung-bursting acceleration wrenched him clear of Sagan by several bike lengths, with Honoré in third. Matthews was at the front of the main bunch, but five seconds further adrift.
Quite apart from setting the record straight after the World Championships, Ulissi's victory allowed the Italian to end a longish drought on his impressive run of Giro stage wins. Since taking a brace of victories in the 2016 Giro, his best Grand Tour results were a third place in the first week of last year's Giro d'Italia behind Richard Carapaz, when the Movistar man placed a viciously-powerful solo, late acceleration in Frascati, and two years ago at the 2018 Tour de France at Le Puy en Velay, when he claimed second in a break behind another lone victor, Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo).
Post his latest win, Ulissi was asked if he had any messages for another Italian UAE Emirates rider who is having a considerably tougher time putting an end to a much longer dearth of results - Fabio Aru, who was last seen in action abandoning in the middle of the Tour de France with uneven form. But Ulissi expressed confidence that the Sardinia-born rider could and would get back on track in the very near future.
"He's a great guy, and he deserves some kind of happiness, and as I've said on other occasions, I'm sure his becoming a father will help him gain some kind of perspective as well," Ulissi insisted, referring to the family addition, set to happen soon.
He then listed the highlights of his compatriot's lengthy palmares, which include stage wins in all three Grand Tours, as well as overall victory in the 2015 Vuelta, as a way of insisting that Aru had the innate class and talent to turn things around - even interrupting the translator to add in "and don't forget the National Championships, he's won that too", to underline his confidence in his Italian teammate.
As for Ulissi's own future goals, he is now the leader of the points competition in the Giro d'Italia and will doubtless try to defend that for as long as possible in the short-term.
The rescheduled 2020 road season meant that Ulissi had to skip one of his dream one-day races, with Liège-Bastogne-Liège falling on the same day as his Giro stage win. Ulissi said he is aiming to improve in his best finish, 20th place in 2013, in La Doyenne down the road.
"I hope to be up there in the future, and I want to see what I can do in Flèche [Wallonne], too, where I've finished third in the past. But in any case, taking a seventh Giro d'Italia win is not exactly something to be unhappy about, either," said Ulissi.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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