MONTREAL — Diego Ulissi was mostly overlooked when he finished third last year, so the Italian made sure to be noticed this time by winning the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal on Sunday afternoon.
The Team Emirates rider, who has won stages of the Giro d’Italia six times, easily took a six-man final sprint ahead of Movistar rider Jesus Herrada Lopez of Spain to post his biggest career victory in a one-day race.
"For sure, it’s important to win at the Giro d’Italia; it’s always a dream," Ulissi said through an interpreter. "But I was looking for the opportunity to win a classic race and the Montreal grand prix was the perfect race for me.
"I was third last year behind two great champions (reigning world champion Peter Sagan and 2016 Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet). This year I tried to be a little bit more brave, trying to attack and go for the victory and I found it."
Tom-Jelte Slagter of Cannondale was third as the favourites were unable to catch up to a late breakaway group that included fourth-place Jan Bakelants of Belgium, Dutchman Bauke Mollema and Tony Gallopin of France. Defending Montreal GP champ Van Avermat was seventh and Sagan was ninth.
Sagan, who led the Bora-Hansgrohe team, took the Quebec City GP on Friday for a second year in a row ahead of Van Avermaet for his 100th career victory.
This time, a group of 16 riders escaped with about 15 kilometres left in the 205.7-kilometre. The charging peloton was only able to chase down 10 of them. Ulissi won the torturous race — 17 laps of a 12.1-kilometre circuit up and down Mount Royal in the centre of the city — in five hours 22 minutes 29 seconds on a cool, sunny day.
The 28-year-old Ulissi, a former world junior champion, is trying to get his career back on track after serving a nine-month doping suspension in 2015. He had been caught with more than twice the allowed limit of an asthma drug in his system at the 2014 Giro. Ulissi was picked to race in the Tour de France this summer and now he has a win in a prestigious UCI WorldTour one-day race.
"I was really confident because after my first Tour de France I worked really hard at home," he said. "My conditioning was max and this race was my biggest goal for the season."
Herrada Lopez was a surprise in second place and but Slagter had been knocking on the door. He finished fourth and sixth at recent Quebec City races.
The 28-year-old Dutchman rides for Cannondale, which announced recently that it’s future was in danger because it lost its main sponsor. A combination of crowd funding and landing a new owner, EF Education First, assured the team’s survival.
"We can all be happy with that — the whole cycling world can be happy that the team continues, but I think it didn’t change a lot," said Slagter. "We raced as good as we can anyway and today we showed how strong we are.
"We were the only team that took control even before halfway through the race. There were two guys in front and everyone was taking it easy. We made the race really hard. That’s what we wanted. Then with three laps to go it was full gas. With two laps to go we had a big group going, with a BMC, a Bora and a Sunweb (rider), so I knew the big favourites would wait and that was our chance."
Van Avermaet’s BMC team, Sagan’s Bora and Michael Matthews’ Sunweb miscalculated and their leaders couldn’t catch up.
Israel Racing Academy’s Ben Perry of St. Catharines, Ont., and national road race champion Matteo Dal-Cin of Ottawa, riding for Team Canada, provided the early entertainment by breaking away from the start and taking a lead of nearly six minutes before they were caught by the peloton after 121 kilometres. They joined arms to celebrate their adventure as they were overtaken.
Antoine Duchesne of Saguenay, Que., was the top Canadian in 42nd spot, 1:40.00 off the winning time.
"I was hoping for a better result overall, but best Canadian is a little cherry on the sundae, so it’s cool," said Duchesne, who will be part of Canada’s three-man team at the world road race championship Sept. 24 in Bergen, Norway. "I’m really happy with the fitness I managed to get.
"I’ve been working hard to get back to this level, so I’m happy to be there with the best in the world only two weeks from the world championships."
Two riders in their last pro race — American Tyler Farrar and Italian Manuel Quinziato — were honoured with starting spots in the front row. Farrar, 33, has had stage wins at the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Spanish Vuelta. The 37-year-old Quinziato is a two-time world championship gold medallist in the team time trial for Italy.