A veteran Sicilian fighting for the podium at the Giro d’Italia? That’s Vincenzo Nibali, right?
Not this year.
Instead, it’s Damiano Caruso, the 33-year-old workhorse that’s converted adversity to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I have the opportunity to crown my career here,” Caruso said Tuesday. “It’s the kind of opportunity that doesn’t present itself very often to a rider like me. It might only come around once, so I’m very determined to achieve it.”
When Bahrain-Victorious captain Mikel Landa crashed out after just five days of the Giro, Caruso was handed the freedom to ride for himself.
In the stages since, he’s stolen his way onto the podium with barely anyone noticing. He now sits second overall ahead of stage 17 on Wednesday, 2:24 down on Egan Bernal.
With Bernal looking bulletproof, Caruso isn’t likely to be winning the Giro any time soon. But with over one minute on Hugh Carthy in third and nearly two minutes on Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech) in fourth, a lifetime of doing the donkey-work for others may finally dish out a dream finish for Caruso.
“I am a rider who flies low,” Caruso said. “But in the sensations I have had up to now, I thought I could finish in a good position in the standings. But I never imagined second place.”
— Team Bahrain Victorious (@BHRVictorious) May 21, 2021
Caruso’s march onto the podium shouldn’t be a total surprise, however. Dig into his palmarès and you’ll see top-10s at all three grand tours, including 10th at the Tour de France last summer while riding to help Landa finish fourth overall.
With Landa out of the picture, his wingman has the rare opportunity to fly.
“I can’t say that everything is a surprise because this position doesn’t come out of nowhere,” he said. “I’ve been demonstrating my qualities and results for a long time, but now I have the true awareness that I can win the podium in this great race.”
Gregario to grandioso
Caruso won’t be ceding his podium slot very easily in the next week. After 12 years in the pro peloton, it’s one of the few opportunities he’ll have in a career that has been long and low-flying.
From Nibali at Liquigas and again at Bahrain-Merida, to Richie Porte and Tejay van Garderen at BMC, Caruso has long been the man giving someone else a wheel but rarely being given a pull by someone else.
— Team Bahrain Victorious (@BHRVictorious) May 12, 2021
Landa’s race-ending crash on stage 5 this month changed everything for both Caruso and Bahrain-Victorious.
“I already knew that I was a good domestique, maybe even one of the best, but it is nice to be able to play a leading role for the team,” he said. “That would all be different if Landa were here.”
Bahrain-Victorious went all-out on the attack after their Basque captain crashed out, and Gino Mäder scored the stage the very next day. The team didn’t take their foot off the accelerator from thereon, with Matej Mohorič diving into the breakaway a few days later only to crash out on a sketchy descent, and this weekend, Jan Tratnik ground his way to second on the Zoncolan summit.
Meanwhile, back in the GC pack, Caruso has stealthily been climbing the GC ladder. Like his quiet slogging in service of others, Caruso’s rise up the classification has been muted but ruthlessly efficient.
When Mäder took the top step after the stage to San Giacomo, Caruso was sitting smugly in seventh place after outclimbing many of his closest GC rivals. The Sicilian stalwart kept going uphill from there, slotting into third on the strade bianche stage when so many around him faltered, and he went one step higher on the shortened snow-riddled stage Monday.
A Bernal brick wall
So with just five days to go until Milano, how far can Caruso go?
With Bernal looking uneatable, it’s second-place or bust.
Also read: Does Bernal have a wrap on the Giro?
“At the moment, I don’t think that Bernal can be beaten. I don’t see another rider who can do it,” he said.
“The heart says one thing, but the legs decide. I’d like to put him in difficulty but it’s evident that he’s the strongest, especially on the climbs, and he’s got a strong team to support him.
“I don’t have many options other than following him and hoping that something might turn the race upside down.”
For Caruso to ride into the pink jersey at his home grand tour is a very far stretch of the imagination. But a 1:16 gap on third-place Carthy and a reputation for getting better as grand tours go on, makes the second step of the podium a very close reality.
Ever the selfless domestique, Caruso said that he’s not just racing for himself this week. It’s all for his sidelined leader and the threadbare, five-man team alongside him.
“I hear from Landa every day, he writes and congratulates me on what I’m doing and gives me courage,” Caruso said. “We are a beautiful team even if we are few. Everyone is helping me and this result will also be for them.”
— Team Bahrain Victorious (@BHRVictorious) May 25, 2021