The run-up to a Grand Tour is always a period packed with information: team rosters are announced and reshuffled; stage profiles revealed, digested and reviewed; facts and figures thrown together and numbers crunched, as anticipation builds ahead of three weeks of racing.
This year, an interesting curiosity jumped out while scanning the pages of data on the stats sites: the oldest rider in the race – Domenico Pozzovivo (40 years and 159 days) – and the youngest – Matthew Riccitello (21 years and 64 days) – are separated by a full 19 years – a generation. But more unusually, both ride for the same team – Israel Premier-Tech. It’s a fun fact in and of itself, and furthermore in light of the team’s reputation as a haven for veteran riders in the twilight of their careers.
While this may still hold some truth, there is also a shift occurring at the team, as Riccitello, and team mates including Australians Corbin Strong, Taj Jones and Sebastian Berwick and Brit Mason Hollyman, are among the young riders dragging the team average age down, while reaping the rewards of being able to learn from the elder statesmen of the sport – the likes of Chris Froome, Jakob Fuglsang, Daryl Impey and Pozzovivo himself.
The Pro Team arrive at the Giro on a wildcard following last season’s relegation from World Tour status. Pozzovivo signed for the team after being without a contract following his departure from Intermarche-Circus-Wanty. It’s a new chance that enables him to take on his 17th edition of the Giro – a record within the peloton, making him not only the oldest rider at the race, but by far the most experienced. During his tenure at La Corsa Rosa, Pozzovivo has won one stage, in 2012, with his highest finishing position on general classification being a respectable 5th place in 2014 and 2018 – though he’s finished in the top ten on GC seven times.
I spoke to Riccitello from his accommodation in Pescara, where the team assembled the day before prior to Saturday’s Grande Partenza in Fossacesia.
‘It's exciting,’ he says of his first Grand Tour experience, which came as something of a surprise. ‘At the beginning of the year, the plan wasn't to do a Grand Tour this year. As the season went on, the team decided that maybe it'd be a good idea to do one this year just for the experience, to keep learning.
‘The Vuelta is normally the Grand Tour that the younger guys do for the first time. This year, because the team is not in the Vuelta it's a bit different. ‘It's becoming more normal for younger riders to be doing Grand Tours – like a 21-year-old doing a Grand Tour doesn't sound crazy young, but at the same time it's kind a cool statistic to be the youngest rider in the race.’
The Giro will be just the second time Riccitello has raced with Pozzovivo and he agrees that his experiences will be invaluable. ‘The Tour of the Alps was the first race I did with him. He’s just super experienced, you can tell straight away that there aren’t many riders now in the peloton that have as much experience as he does. In general, he’ll throw little bits and pieces of advice in when he can.’
Pozzovivo’s experience goes beyond simply racing strategy and knowledge of the routes. ‘He also knows the weather, like, if it's gonna rain or not, or “the wind always blows in this direction” and this region and like, at the Tour of the Alps, everybody was thinking it was gonna rain one day, but he's like, this depression could go a different direction. And then he was right.’
Riccitello will be among the support riders for Pozzovivo as he goes for another tilt at the general classification. ‘If I can stay around him and help him as much as I can, that's the first thing, and then we may be looking at stages later on the race,’ he says, of his hopes for the upcoming three weeks. ‘I feel like I recovered pretty well in other stage races and get better as the race goes on. But a Grand Tour is completely different. And so we’ll just see how the body responds and take it day by day.’
Getting to know the new kid on the block
The son of a professional triathlete, Jimmy Riccitello, Matthew Riccitello grew up around cycling, though he was a late bloomer on the bike. ‘We would always have the Tour on in the summer. I did a bunch of sports growing up, team sports and running and swimming. Cycling was the last sport I picked up, when I was 14. And I liked it more than other sports. So I just kept cycling and kind of stopped doing everything else.
‘And then everything went pretty quickly. I mean, I was 14 or 15 starting out and that's only five or six years ago and now I'm doing my first Grand Tour. Even yesterday, travelling to the race, I had a couple of moments of like five, six years ago, I just started riding and now I'm going to my first Grand Tour. It's pretty surreal, it's hard to wrap my head around or think about too much.’
Riccitello, who is a climber by trade, first attracted the attention of the team after performing well on his home training ride, the Shootout in Tuscon, Arizona, in the presence of long-term IPT rider Mike Woods. Later he moved to Hagens Berman Axeon until he turned pro with IPT this year. ‘Once the time came to make decisions on where to turn professional, the team was so interested from early on and had kept showing interest and the plan that they had set out all seemed like something that would be perfect for me.’
One of a number of young American riders coming through in the peloton right now, I ask Riccitello what it’s like to follow in the footsteps of riders like Neilson Powless and Matteo Jorgenson.
‘Encouraging I think is the perfect word. I think it's cool to see cycling in the US, now we have a good amount of guys who are performing well on the highest stage and it's comforting to see a team mate at a race who is from the US, who speaks English and has also made the move to Europe.’
The season so far has been a learning experience for the Arizona native, who won the youth classification at the Vuelta a San Juan in January, and most recently came third in the same category at the Tour of the Alps, with his best result an 8th place finish on stage 3.
‘Going into the year I just wanted to keep learning and the team didn't have too many expectations, results-wise, mainly just to get experience. I've always put pressure on myself more internally than externally to do well. It's gone well. I improved from race to race, gaining experience and also having some opportunities to get some results for myself and see if I can climb with the best guys.’
We’ll be following Riccitello’s progress in our ‘young rider watch’ on the daily Giro bulletins – SUBSCRIBE NOW to keep up to date with him and with all of the news, reviews and previews as the race unfolds.