Michael Woods starts to chuckle. “He just makes me feel super old,” the Canadian laughs. “When we’re sitting at the dinner table, Daryl [Impey] and I are always telling stories, and he’ll just drop in and be like, ‘oh yeah, I was 10 years old then’, and I’m like, man, that was not long ago.”
The person, or "young kid", Woods is referring to is American Matthew Riccitello, his new Israel-Premier Tech teammate who only turned 21 at the start of March. He has already caused quite the impression among his colleagues, and not only because he won the youth classification on debut at the Vuelta a San Juan.
“He’s just a great bike rider,” says his team’s sports director Sam Bewley. “His physical abilities are so good that he will be able to do some pretty good results in the not too distant future on some big mountains.”
The son of Jimmy Riccitello, an accomplished triathlete who won the first Xterra Triathlon World Championships - an off-road event - in 1996, Riccitello Junior was also a swimmer and runner in his youth, but committed to cycling aged 13.
Successful years on the American junior circuit earned him a place on the prolific development team of Hagens Berman Axeon, and last August, five months after winning the four-day Istrian Spring Trophy in Croatia, he joined the Israeli team as a stagiaire before penning a three year deal.
A lot is expected of him. “He's a pure climber,” Bewley adds. “And being a pure climber is one of the very important aspects of becoming a GC rider in the future. There are other things you need to be good at to be a good GC rider and he has the ability to do those things too. But first and foremost he’s just focused on doing really fast climbs and getting up mountains fast, and then the rest of the puzzle will come into place in the next couple of years. He’ll be a GC rider in the future for sure.”
Riccitello is a slight, slim 55kg. He looks like he would be blown over by a gust of wind. “Baby-faced,” is Woods’ simple description. A frat party looks more of his natural surroundings, not standing on stage alongside a handful of 30-plus somethings in front of a crowd consisting mostly of retirees at the Volta a Catalunya, his first European WorldTour stage race.
And therein lies part of the challenge for Israel-Premier Tech, now part of the second-tier ProTour ranks, in how they nurture this pocket-sized prodigious talent. They are the Care Home of the Men’s Peloton, guardians of former champions (Chris Froome, 37; Jacob Fuglsang, 38) and final resting homes of other veterans (Ben Hermans and Simon Clarke, both 36; Sep Vanmarcke and Giacomo Nizzolo, both 34). 40 year old Domenico Pozzovivo, meanwhile, is 19 years Riccitello’s senior. They are fading powers with an abundance of experience.
In Catalonia, Riccitello has turned to Woods, himself a former runner, for advice. “The chance to learn from Mike is really cool,” he says. “I am in a fortunate position that I came to this sport super late,” Woods says, nodding to his late entrance at 27 years old. “I had to learn the sport and it’s given me a different perspective to a lot of riders. It’s allowed me to impart lessons that I’ve learned as I write everything down. I watch what Matthew is doing, see where his deficits are, and try to lift him up to get him better.”
Bewley has been impressed by the young Arizonan’s willingness to ask questions. “He sticks to himself, but you can just see that he's like a bit of a sponge,” the New Zealander reveals. “He’s a really nice, unassuming guy. He’s quiet but he’s always listening to everybody, taking advice really well and learning really quickly. With that attitude he’s going to be a good bike rider very, very soon.”
Riccitello’s wide smile masks an apparent timidness, but when speaking to Cycling Weekly, he leaves an unambiguous impression of just how ambitious he is. “The longer contract maybe takes the pressure off myself, but for a guy like me there’s always internal pressure. Not from anyone but myself,” he states. “I always want to perform well. I believe in the team, it’s nice to have a long term deal, as far as expectations go, they haven’t changed from myself.”
He is the fifth figure to add to an improving collection of American GC riders: already this year Matteo Jorgenson has taken his first stage race victory at the Tour of Oman, while Neilson Powless won Etoile de Bessèges. Alongside them there’s the obvious potential of Brandon McNulty, and Ineos Grenadiers’ versatile 20 year old Magnus Sheffield.
Riccitello has bought into the process of gradually developing, but he’s keen to show his own prowess, too. “For the moment it’s about learning, but if the opportunities come to ride for GC myself, I will take it,” he says. Bewley sights such chances at every race Riccitello rides: “The way he climbs, he is always going to push himself into a position where he has opportunities, and a lot of the time he competes on circumstance,” Bewley says. “With his ability to climb with such small groups, there’ll always be chances for him.”
When Riccitello is expected to be at the peak of his undoubted powers, Woods’ time in cycling will have passed, but he won’t disconnect from his mentoring. “I am really excited about him because he’s such a strong rider,” he adds. “Hopefully he can learn quickly and he will be at the front of the racing. It’ll be nice for me to be on the couch, feet up, and watching him succeed.”
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