From the outset, Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) knew that this was going to be a bellwether day in the race for the maglia ciclamino on the Giro d'Italia. Sam Bennett's brace of stage victories and superior climbing ability had moved him a little too close for comfort in the points classification during the Giro's second week. Viviani was all too aware that the early climb out of Riva del Garda to Lago di Ampola on stage 16 had the potential to swing this particular battleground stage in Bennett's favour.
"This morning I was quite nervous because I saw this stage as the only one where Sam Bennett could compete for the maglia ciclamino," Viviani said after landing victory ahead of the Irishman in the bunch sprint in a drenched Iseo. "It was coming after a rest day and a time trial, and it started with a climb, so it could have been a dangerous situation, and we rode quite defensively. I was dropped on the first climb, but the team chased and help me get back up on the descent."
After surviving that initial scare, Viviani's manifesto for the remainder of the stage was straightforward: stay as close to Bennett as possible. Even a second-place finish behind the Bennett would have left Viviani with an imposing advantage in the points classification, and he was determined to take no risks after conceding so much ground in Gualdo Tadino and Imola last week.
When the heavens opened on the finishing circuit on the shores of Lago di Iseo, however, Viviani opted for a change of tack and latched onto his Quick-Step train ahead of the final kilometre. It proved a sage decision. While Zdenek Stybar and Fabio Sabatini served as Viviani's twin locomotives in the finale, Bennett found himself boxed in. Although the Irishman somehow managed to untangle himself and then deliver a thundering sprint, he ran out of road and had to settle for a disappointed second behind Viviani.
"For the sprint, I tried to put a bit of pressure on Bennett by following his wheel, but with the rain, we changed tactics a bit and I followed my train," said Viviani. "Stybar and Saba, they did great work and made the difference in my sprint. Saba had a bike problem and a puncture in the last couple of sprints and he was feeling a bit of pressure because he wanted to contribute, and I think today he was the one who made the difference in the sprint."
Viviani's triumph in Iseo was his fourth in this Giro – the most by an Italian rider in a single edition since Alessandro Petacchi notched up four wins in 2005 – and has all but sealed victory in the points classification, where he holds a lead of 58 points over Bennett with only one likely bunch sprint to come, in Rome on the final day.
His running total for his first season since leaving Sky for Quick-Step, meanwhile, is now at ten. Fernando Gaviria will lead the line for Patrick Lefevere's squad in the sprints at the Tour de France, while Viviani will seek to add to his glut of wins in the latter part of the season, though his programme beyond the Giro is yet to be decided.
"I wanted to confirm myself at a high level and winning stages at the Giro d'Italia was the first step," said Viviani. "We'll see if I go to Hamburg and Plouay, or to the Vuelta, but either way, it will be a chance to affirm myself again. In any case, the first part of the season finishes for me in Rome on Sunday, and now I just want to enjoy myself from here to the end of the Giro."
The ultimate affirmation for an Italian sprinter, of course, is victory on the Via Roma at Milan-San Remo. Gaviria's absence saw Viviani lead Quick-Step at La Classicissima this year, but he could only manage 19th in the sprint as Vincenzo Nibali soloed to victory. "Milan-San Remo is the race of my dreams. This year I was there in the finale, but when it came to the sprint, I had to sit down, I didn't have the legs," Viviani said. "But I want to go back and try again."
Wednesday's stage finish in the province of Brescia was just a stone's throw from the Montichiari velodrome, where Viviani trod the boards in preparation for his gold-medal winning ride in the Omnium at the Rio 2016 Olympics. On Tuesday, Tuttobici reported that the track is currently in a state of disuse due to a leaking roof, and Viviani shook his head sadly when asked to comment on the situation. Its future has the feel of a bellwether for the health of Italian cycling.
"It's a facility with a value of €15 or 20 million. I don't know exactly what the problem is, but the fact is that there's water leaking into the track. Let's hope that someone intervenes," Viviani said. "The velodrome is owned by the municipality of Montichiari, but I don't know if they can afford to fix it, and we know the difficulties for the federation in raising the money, but let's hope they can make sacrifices to keep the project going.
"Come August, the Olympic qualification for the team pursuit and the omnium will already have started. We're coming from Rio where we had a gold medal and the team pursuit squad also hit its objective. It's the only covered track in Italy and we need it. It would be a shame if it all went badly now, just when Italian track cycling has returned to being among the best in the world."