Giulio Ciccone betters blue with an emotional stage victory

Ciccone wins a two-up sprint in stage 16 and increases his lead in the mountains classification.

Giulio Ciccone always wanted more than mountain points when joining a breakaway, and in stage 16 – an astonishing sixth time joining the escape group in this year’s Giro d’Italia – he finally achieved his most important goal by outsprinting Jan Hirt (Astana) in a wet and cold ending to the 194-kilometer mountain stage.

“For sure this is one of the best moments of my career,” said Ciccone when asked how he feels. “This is my second victory in the Giro, and the first was, of course, very good, but this stage for me was my dream. With the Mortirolo and the Aprica…this is an incredible moment for me.”

Of course, Ciccone has been content with the Maglia Azzurra – wearing the blue jersey since the first day and only ceding it to teammate Gianluca Brambilla for one stage – but wouldn’t be completely satisfied leaving the Giro without a win.

He had red-circled stage 16, and when he pulled off the unbelievable feat, his emotions erupted over the finish line.  Pulling off his Koo eyewear, he flung the glasses into the crowd, let out a yell, and punched the air. It was a memorable moment for Ciccone – and also for a lucky fan.

“This stage was my favorite stage in this Giro with Mortirolo,” explained Ciccone. “When I knew I had won I yelled because I felt finally free of two years of frustrations since winning my first stage at the Giro and because there was a bit of everything today – the hills, rain, cold… And yes, because it was a bit nervous the finish. But the day finished the best way possible.”

Ciccone looked to be one of the strongest of the day’s 21-rider breakaway that formed in the early part of the race, easily grabbing the points over the two category-three rated climbs, but it was the Passo del Mortirolo that would be the toughest test.  Would the five-minute gap the leading group held onto the bottom slopes be enough on the notorious ascent – a 12-kilometer grind with sustained gradients between 13 and 18 percent?  And the bigger question, would Ciccone have the legs after all the work he has done in this year’s race in pursuit of stage glory, the mountain points, and working for leader Bauke Mollema?

It didn’t take long for an answer. Ciccone launched the first serious attack from the breakaway and was able to close the gap on the counter moves by Team Astana’s Jan Hirt.  The ridiculous steep climb did the rest, sorting out the two strongest as Hirt and Ciccone crested the rain-shrouded mountain-top together.

“My feeling was good on the Mortirolo; I had good legs, but the problem was Hirt. You know if you arrive with two riders, it’s always uncertain. I was nervous when Hirt was not working, and I didn’t know the distance to the others behind. But the day finished the best way possible. In the end, it’s okay like this,” smiled Ciccone.

Ciccone and Hirt were soaked through, and with a stage win on the line were unable to take the time to don extra clothing over the top. It was a chilling and numbing descent and run-in to the finish.

“The last downhill was very, very cold,” Ciccone agreed. “For me, the rain and the cold are not my favorite conditions, but today was a different day. I suffered a lot in the downhill of the Mortirolo, but when you win, you don’t feel it anymore.”

With still four minute’s lead in the final 10 kilometers, the pair had little to worry about, but when Hirt briefly stopped working, Ciccone became anxious.

“Yes, it was a bit nervous between us because he didn’t want to cooperate, but in the end, it all turned out okay,” added Ciccone, who led out the final kilometer and sprint and easily held off the challenge from Hirt. “I went from the front in the sprint because I wanted to have the control as you never know what happens in the last kilometer. I know I have a good sprint, so I took the lead. For sure, it can be a risk, but it worked out.”

Ciccone gained the maximum points on offer over the three categorized climbs in stage 16 and has a lofty lead in the mountains classification, however, it was never his goal when he joined the 21-rider move.

I have a good advantage in the classification, but I am very happy for the stage because it was the first goal for the team and me in this Giro, and to win the stage of the Mortirolo is a dream. Now I also have this jersey, and for sure we will try to keep it.

While all the glory for stage 16 was stolen by Ciccone, and rightfully so, Bauke Mollema quietly had a solid day in the mountains, looking stronger than the previous stages. He arrived at the finish with Simon Yates and Primoz Roglic to move up one spot in the overall to fifth place.