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Matthew Riccitello: Tour de l’Avenir podium would be amazing

'I’m pretty confident that once we get to the mountains I’ll be up there with the best guys,' says American youngster.

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On Thursday the Tour de l’Avenir gets underway with the best men’s U23 riders in the world set to take part in the ten-day stage race in France.

The race is often described as a crystal ball when it comes to predicting future Tour de France winners, and former victors include Tadej Pogačar, Egan Bernal and America’s own, Greg LeMond.

After a one-year hiatus, the United States is back in the race with a squad stacked with talent. VeloNews has already spoken to American riders Luke Lamperti and Cooper Johnson, and this time we’ve checked in with GC contender Matthew Riccitello on the eve of the race. The highly talented 20-year-old is currently racing as a stagiaire with Israel Premier-Tech.

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VeloNews: How’s the mood in camp right now ahead of Thursday’s prologue?

Matthew Riccitello: It’s cool to be with guys from the US. It’s unique and it’s different compared to what we do for the rest of the year, and we’ve been in France since last night. We drove over from our base in Belgium, had a little ride, and the mechanics are working on putting the bikes together. Today we had another ride, had a couple of COVID tests, and then we’ve got a team presentation later in the afternoon. There’s also a rider briefing, so it’s a pretty packed schedule.

VN: Coming into the race I’ve talked to USA Cycling’s Mike Sayers and a couple of your teammates, and they’ve all said that you’re the GC candidate. How are you feeling about that responsibility and how is the form in terms of making the GC a target?

MR: I’m honored to have that role and to be the designated leader. My form is good and it’s nice to have the support of the team and to do this race. It’s a race that I’ve been looking forward to since I was a junior. Watching guys like Neilson Powless and Adrien Costa do this race in the past was really inspiring and it’s something that every young rider looks forward to doing. It was a bummer not doing it last year with the US not sending a team, so this is really exciting.

My form is good but it generally improves at the end of the year. Looking back, I was sick at the Baby Giro and I was struggling a bit to be honest. I’ve not felt like myself since then but in the last month I’ve started to come around and I’ve got my legs back. I’m looking forward to the race.

VN: Did you have COVID?

MR: We think it was just a bug but it was definitely COVID-like symptoms. My roommate and I both had it at the Giro. We both tested negative at the time but you read all the time about tests not being super reliable.

VN: In terms of your own expectations for the race, what’s your main ambition within the GC?

MR: It’s hard to say. I think the big thing is getting through the first four or five days in a good position in terms of those other GC guys. The first couple of days are always really hectic and there’s a lot going on, but I’m pretty confident that once we get to the mountains I’ll be up there with the best guys. Podium would be amazing.

VN: Looking at the course, you’ve got two or three really tricky days in the mountains with some blockbuster stages to La Toussuire and Saint-François-Longchamp. What are your overall impressions of the route?

MR: I’ve not looked in a lot of detail but I’ve checked out the stage profiles. I tend to really look at the details ahead of each day and just take the race one stage at a time.

VN: Tell us about the support you’ll have within the race.

MR: It’s an interesting group. Some of us have raced together since we were juniors. I’ve raced with Luke and Jared Scott since I was 15 and some of the others I don’t know as well, but already we’ve got a good environment and everyone is getting along.

VN: In terms of the Vuelta a Burgos, where you raced for Israel-Premier Tech, was that intensity the ideal preparation for l’Avenir?

MR: It definitely was really good preparation. The racing was hard and going day after day, you can’t replicate that in training. Racing at WorldTour, I think some people also underestimate the strength within the U23 level now. Going back and forth between U23 and WorldTour, I actually think that the level is pretty similar, but for sure, doing Burgos was good ahead of this race.

I was really excited to do Burgos. I had done pro level races before but not against that level of a field. It was pretty surreal doing climbs and being on Vincenzo Nibali’s wheel and having a rider like Jai Hindley next to me. I’ve been watching these guys since I started cycling, and there I was going up climbs with them. For sure there were a few times in the peloton at Burgos when I would look around and realize I was on Nibali’s wheel. That was super exciting. I’ve always liked him, and his style.

He’s one of my favorites, I think.