The Volta a Catalunya started as Remco Evenepoel v Primož Roglič - but it’s now turning into an unexpected three-way battle for supremacy.
It’s Italian Giulio Ciccone, however, not Geraint Thomas or Richard Carapaz, who has joined the two superstars in contention for the GC battle, the Trek-Segafredo rider nipping past both in the sprint to the line at the summit finish of Vallter 2000 on stage two.
If spectators were surprised - it was only Ciccone’s ninth professional win in as many years as a professional - then so too were the men who were expected to win.
“You know, when two are fighting, it’s the other guy who takes it, eh,” Roglič said in his typically relaxed demeanour. “Well, that’s what they say. And then he [Ciccone] won at the end!”
Let’s be clear on something: it’s not like Ciccone has just appeared out of nowhere. An accomplished climber for multiple seasons and a winner of three Giro d'Italia stages, the 28 year old is enjoying his best ever start to the season, finishing second at the Volta a la Valenciana, fifth at Tirreno-Adriatico, and boasting a win and three top-fives in those two stage races.
He was fifth on stage one of the Catalan race, but very few people had him down as beating the Giro d’Italia two five-star favourites on the second etapa. Already, there’s a sizable gap from the top-three to the rest - Mikel Landa in fourth is 27 seconds back from leader Roglič. Two really has become three.
“I don’t know who was the best today,” mused Evenepoel, he having attacked twice in the final kilometres before proceeding to lead out the sprint for longer than was necessary. “I did the most work in the last kilometres.
“I think I just started my sprint a bit too early which caused a lot of lactate in the legs for the last 50 metres and I had no acceleration anymore. I think the three best arrived together today.
“But Ciccone wins the stage, takes 10 seconds [as a bonus], so he is coming closer as well.” So close, he's tied on the same time with Evenepoel in joint-second.
The Italian drew on a turn of speed he didn’t know he possessed. “I don’t know where I found the last sprint from in the last 50 metres,” he laughed, though seriousness was present in his intonation.
Up close, Evenepoel sighted Ciccone’s strength. “He looks very good,” he opined. Roglič was equally as flattering. “He definitely deserves it. I already raced with him at Tirreno and he was super close a couple of times.” So it’s not a complete shock that he’s only six seconds off Roglič in the GC standings? “Not at all,” replied the Slovenian.
Which begs the question: can Ciccone maintain this form? Is he, in his late 20s - the age that cyclists traditionally entered their peak years - developing into a true rival for Roglič and co?
“Ah, I mean,” Ciccone struggled to respond. “It’s hard. But we are there so we can fight for the GC for sure.”
He’s currently riding career-best form. “They are the two strongest riders,” he said. “The last climb was really fast: in my head I was trying to stay on their wheels, to follow, follow, follow. I did my best in the last kilometre.
“We all know that when they move, you need to follow, but you need to have the legs to follow. It’s easy to know that, but hard to do it. Today was a good day for us.”
Ciccone is even speaking like a champion, one fuelled by defeats, and not a rider satisfied just to be riding alongside the very elite. “In the last two weeks I’ve lost many times," he rued. "Especially to Roglič, he’s won everything." He's not wrong, but Ciccone has been there most of the time, shadowing him.
Yet on the highest paved road in the Spanish-side of the Pyrenees, the King of the Mountain's winner of the 2019 Giro d'Italia finally got the better of him.
He's got the legs, alright. “Well, yes,” he laughed. Two has become three - but for how long? “We have no stress,” Ciccone smiled. "We have a strong team. We will take it day by day and we can do our best."
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