While a final podium featuring Egan Bernal and Simon Yates was expected before the start in Turin three weeks ago, the inclusion of Damiano Caruso is reminiscent of last year's Giro d'Italia, when Tao Geogheghan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) and Jai Hindley (DSM) were the unexpected riders breaking into the top three after their team leaders either fell short or literally came off their bikes at the Italian Grand Tour.
For Bahrain-Victorious, things couldn't have looked worse when Mikel Landa crashed out in the first week, especially considering how strong he'd looked in the opening swipes he'd delivered to his GC rivals. Instead, Damiano Caruso took the opportunity of a career to quietly ride himself up the GC as the highest-finishing Italian, flying under the radar as attention lingered on more popular homegrown talents such as Trek-Segafredo's Giulio Ciccone.
Caruso's all but assured second-place finish in the overall classification was not only capped off but secured thanks to his stage-winning exploits on this penultimate day, attacking the GC group on the descent of the first climb before dispensing with Romain Bardet on the final climb and holding off Egan Bernal to take a first-ever Giro stage win and only a third career victory.
"I thought about a thousand things in the last meters before the finish line, all my sacrifices, my training, and all the work done by my teammates," Caruso said after the finish atop Alpe Motta.
"We rode in an exemplary way today, Pello Bilbao in particular did an incredible job and he played a fundamental role in this victory," Caruso added.
It was a day where the necessity of strong team-mates was put on display front and centre, with Caruso and Bardet being led up the road by Pello Bilbao and Michael Storer, while behind Daniel Martínez once again shepherded Egan Bernal safely to the finish line to sew up the maglia rosa.
While Martínez created an iconic moment on stage 17, willing Bernal on as his team leader struggled on that day's final climb, this time it was Caruso with the gestures, patting Bilbao on the back as the Spaniard was dropped, having set his team-mate up for victory.
Questo è ciclismo, questa è classe, questo è @CarusoDamiano 🙌 pic.twitter.com/5XBEXEozGvMay 29, 2021
"Today I realised a dream, I think I am the happiest man in the world!" Caruso said, and it's likely he will still be the happiest man in the world tomorrow when he steps up onto that final podium in Milan.
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