The depth of the Ineos Grenadiers team supporting Richard Carapaz at the Giro d’Italia is clear from the names of the riders left out of the line-up. There was no place for the experienced Elia Viviani, for the 2020 winner Tao Geoghegan Hart or, most notably of all, for the on-form Eddie Dunbar, winner of the Settimana Coppi e Bartali.
The process of putting together a team, sportif director Matteo Tosatto conceded as the race began, was far from straightforward, but one name was effectively an automatic selection. Ineos have won three of the past four editions of the Giro d’Italia and the only rider to contribute to each of those successful Italian expeditions was Salvatore Puccio.
Tosatto has described Puccio as the ‘faro’ – the guiding light – of the Ineos Giro d’Italia team, and there was little prospect of the Italian being considered to be surplus requirements here, despite illness and injury blighting the opening weeks of his season. “Let’s say that it’s already nine years that I’ve been here at the Giro, and I’ve earned quite a lot of trust from the team,” Puccio told Cyclingnews. “That’s important.”
Puccio’s Giro debut came in 2013, and it began in dizzying fashion with a day in the pink jersey when his Sky team won the stage 2 team time trial on Ischia. Perhaps fittingly, the career gregario was an accidental maglia rosa. In the pre-stage briefing, it was decided that Dario Cataldo would cross the first line and – so Sky thought – take possession of the jersey, but the team had overlooked the fact that the general classification would be decided on placings from the previous day’s opening road stage.
The neophyte Puccio thus found himself spending a most unexpected day in pink on the Amalfi coast before conceding the jersey at Marina d’Ascea and returning to his initial posting in support of Bradley Wiggins. The Briton’s tilt at the Giro was an ill-starred one, and Sky would endure several false dawns in Italy until they finally cracked the corsa rosa in the most tumultuous of circumstances with Chris Froome on the Finestre in 2018.
Puccio was by Froome’s side through that Giro, and he was the road captain two years later when Tao Geoghegan Hart emerged as the surprise winner of the pandemic-delayed edition of 2020. Twelve months ago, Puccio was part of Egan Bernal’s guard as the Colombian carried the pink jersey for two whole weeks.
“This is my ninth Giro and they’ve all been quite different, but I’m quite fortunate that I’ve won three of them, and with three different champions,” Puccio said. “The three Giri were all completely different. Froome turned the whole situation on its head a couple of days from the finish. There were two weeks of struggling and trying to move back up the GC, and then a finale where he managed to produce one of the exploits that will live on in history.
“Tao’s was a bit of a surprise, in that it came together in the last few days of the race, but he showed by then that he was the strongest rider in the race, so it was fully deserved. Then last year’s was controlled by Egan from the start; dominated from the start, really.”
Yet while Bernal’s was, from the outside, the most straightforward of the three Giro wins, it was perhaps the most arduous for the team’s engine room. Once Bernal seized the Maglia rosa at Campo Felice on the second weekend, Ineos bore most of the responsibility for controlling the race, with Puccio and Filippo Ganna taking long, long shifts at the head of the peloton.
“It seemed ‘easy,’ because Egan is such a talent and maybe he always had a bit more than the others, but it was still hard for us,” Puccio said. “We were defending the jersey day in, day out for almost two weeks, and that was very tough for us as a team.”
After working for the rigorous Froome – “Chris used to take the situation in hand from kilometre zero to the finish,” Puccio told BiciPro before the Giro – and the gregarious, polyglot Bernal, Puccio now finds himself in the service of a quieter kind of leader. “Richard is a very reserved guy but he’s also very sure of himself,” Puccio said. “And he’s very decisive in the crucial moments.”
Carapaz made his first flex of the Giro d’Italia when he led home the group of favorites on Mount Etna on stage 4 after Ineos had set the tempo that did for Tom Dumoulin and Vincenzo Nibali. The next crucial moment should come on the road to Potenza on Friday, but every day has its pitfalls on the Giro.
On the run-in to Messina on stage 5, Puccio helped to shepherd Carapaz home safely in the peloton and the Ecuadorian remains well-positioned in 11th overall, 2:06 behind leader Juan Pedro López (Trek-Segafredo). One day less.
The evening would bring Puccio and the Giro on the ferry crossing from Messina to the mainland. Puccio, a native of Melfi, left Sicily with his family as a teenager to move north to Umbria, from where he graduated to the professional peloton. Although men like Puccio, Damiano Caruso and, above all, the retiring Vincenzo Nibali have bolstered Sicily’s presence in the gruppo over the past decade or so, the center of gravity of Italian cycling has not shifted.
“Cycling has evolved a bit,” Puccio said, “but young Sicilian riders are still obliged to leave home and move to the north to find teams that are at a higher level.”