An unlikely star: Caruso enthralls at Giro

On the final mountain test of the Giro d'Italia it wasn't a massive name of the sport, a highly paid superstar that took the headlines, but an unassuming mountain domestique who ground his way to the stage win and a certain spot on the final Giro d'Italia podium.

104th Giro d'Italia 2021 - Stage 20

Damiano Caruso enroute to a win on Stage 20 at the 2021 Giro d'Italia Source: Getty

Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious) has spent his career in cycling being a solid rider, without the flashy accelerations of his peers which restricts the types of races that he can win. 

His two previous victories at UCI level came seven years apart, a stage of the Coppi e Bartali in 2013 and the Circuit de Getxo in 2020. Both races were run in very poor conditions, Caruso won the former with a grinding attack and the latter with a 1-2 move with a teammate on an isolated Movistar rider and then just outlasted the chase into the finish, neither was a victory that will live long in the memory. However, a daring mountain raid as the second rider on the general classification will be a ride that many will remember as the iconic moment of this year's Giro d'Italia.


It was an opportunistic move going clear with 54 kilometres remaining in the race as Team DSM poured on the pressure on the descent from the Passo San Bernandino. 

"It wasn’t planned at all, this attack," said Caruso. "Sometimes things come about like this by chance. You need a bit of madness, which we had today, but also a bit of intelligence, because our race was impeccable. We saw DSM in front on the descent of the San Bernardino and with Pello I said, ‘On a day like today, you never know what might happen, so let’s follow them'."

What followed was a display in teamwork and the value of impromptu mid-race alliances as Team DSM and Bahrain Victorious expended Chris Hamilton, Michael Storer and Pello Bilbao to keep the pace high and deliver their team leaders, Caruso and Romain Bardet, to the final climb with a 40 second lead on the INEOS Grenadiers-led chase. When Bilbao swung off, it was rewarded by a pat on the back from a man who knows all too well what it is to sacrifice for others. Indeed, he came to the race to do that role for pre-race contender Mikel Landa.

"The biggest difference between being a gregario and a leader is the pressure that you have to get a result," Caruso said. "When you’re the leader, you know everything hinges on you. As a gregario, I had a job to do, but nobody would ever ask me why I hadn’t won.

"That changed on this Giro, but I didn’t. I just threw myself into this challenge, which was above all a challenge for myself."

He answered that challenge in style with the victory as he dropped the struggling form of Bardet with two kilometres to go, then held off the formidable INEOS duo of Bernal and Martinez to take the win. As the hubbub at the finish line reached fever-pitch, Italian broadcasters flashed images of Caruso with the title 'campione', champion in English.

"I think I’m an excellent professional and a good rider. I’ve never considered myself a champion because I’ve never won like a champion," said Caruso. "But today, I had my day like a champion, yes."

"Tomorrow, it’s not that Caruso will suddenly become a winner, but these three weeks have taught me a lot. Now, I realise fully what I can do in future. It’s true I’m 33 years old, but I can still improve."

That dawning realisation may be coming at what many consider the dusk of Caruso's career but for a rider who's now reached the pointy end of a Grand Tour and pushed the presumptive winner, Bernal, to his maximum, a mid-Giro epiphany seemingly unlocked something within him.

"After the stage on the gravel at Montalcino, I was still up there and I started to think to myself, why settle? I’ve spent a life settling," said Caruso. "Why not try to risk? What did I have to lose? Why not look for something more?"

The present task in that regard is a one minute and 59-second deficit to Egan Bernal that will allow Caruso to jump from second to first if he can absolutely blitz the 30.3-kilometre final time trial and hope that Bernal has an off-day. There's no chance that the Italian will give up any point before the finish line in Milan.

"For me the Giro could end today," said Caruso, referencing the large gap to the race leader. "I’m going to give everything, everything I’ve got left. There would be no sense in calculating, in thinking about different hypotheses. Tomorrow is a day of closure. And however it goes, it will be a triumph for me."

The Giro d'Italia will conclude with the Stage 21 time trial in Milan, a 30.3-kilometre flat course that see the overall winner of the Italian Grand Tour crowned. You can watch all the action from 2115 AEST on SBS OnDemand, with SBS VICELAND coverage starting from 2120.

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5 min read
Published 30 May 2021 at 8:51am
By Jamie Finch-Penninger