After some expert pacing by his Italian team-mate Valerio Conti, Ulissi rode clear of a group of 12 riders on a stinging ramp outside the Calabrian coastal town of Praia a Mare before holding off a select chasing group of race favourites to secure the fifth Giro d'Italia scalp of his career in the 200km stage from Catanzaro.
Dumoulin, the Giant-Alpecin rider who won the race's opening time trial in Apeldoorn in his native Netherlands, led the chasing pack over the line five seconds in arrears to move back into the maglia rosa after overnight leader Marcel Kittel cracked on the series of climbs that peppered the second half of the stage.
Kittel's Etixx-QuickStep team-mate Bob Jungels, the Luxembourg national champion, moved up to second in the overall standings, 20 seconds behind Dumoulin, with Ulissi rising to third thanks to 10 extra bonus seconds procured at the finish.
“It’s a really nice feeling. Being Italian it’s great to win in the Giro and when I was small I dreamed of days like this,” 26-year-old Ulissi said. “I started the season well and I’m glad to have kept my form and win today.”
Ulissi’s first win of the season win came after an original break of four riders had been caught ahead of the second of two third-category climbs, sparking a counter-attack that featured Conti and then Ulissi himself.
“When the break went it was a bit nervous so Conti was brilliant to get in that second group and I was able to come across and join him,” Ulissi said.
Although uncategorised, the short and sharp ramp that came 10 kilometres from the finish proved most decisive. Peaking at a maximum gradient of 18 per cent and featuring some stunning hairpins overlooking the shimmering Tyrrhenian Sea, the climb shook up both the leading group of riders and the main chasing pack of race favourites.
“I was a bit scared approaching the final climb but Conti did a great job before I attacked and finished it off,” said Ulissi.
Ulissi: When I was little, I dreamt about things like this
Back with the main favourites the attacks came thick and fast. By now all the main sprinters – including Kittel, winner of the two previous stages in the Netherlands – had floundered, while some big names such as Andrey Amador (Movistar) and Ryder Hesjedal (Trek-Segafredo) had lost contact.
Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), Moreno Moser (Cannondale) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) all put in attacks from the streamlined pack, while the likes of Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), Rafal Majka (Tinkoff) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) watched each other intently.
Of the race favourites only Mikel Landa (Team Sky) appeared to be under some pressure, although the Spaniard did manage to recover in time to finish alongside his rivals on the race’s first finish on Italy.
In the end it was Dutchmen Dumoulin and Kruijswijk who led the chase on Ulissi, who held a slender 15-second lead going over the final climb ahead of the drop back to the coast.
Dumoulin won the sprint for second place and with it bagged six bonus seconds and moved back into the race lead. While he came up short of the win, it marked a successful day for his Giant-Alpecin team, who also had Austrian Georg Preidler in the Ulissi break and within touching distance of taking the pink jersey himself.
“It was a bit harder than I expected today,” Dumoulin admitted after regaining the race lead. “We knew it was a tricky finale and too hard for Marcel so we decided to make the race hard and go for pink. We had Georg Preidler in the second break and we were happy for him to take the pink but it didn’t work out that way. In the end I managed to come second and take the jersey but I would have preferred to win the stage.”
Priedler instead rose to fifth place on GC, 24 seconds behind his team-mate and level with fourth-place Kruijswijk. Nibali, Valverde, Fuglsang, Nicolas Roche (Team Sky) and Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) complete a new-look top ten, with the likes of Zakarin, Uran, Majka and Landa all lurking.
While Kittel lost the maglia rosa he mounted the podium to pick up the red points jersey, while Italian veteran Damiano Cunego (Nippo-Vini Fantini) took the blue mountains jersey after cresting the summit of the Cat.3 San Pietro climb in pole position 50 kilometres from the finish.
Conti: I gave my heart for Ulissi to win
Cunego, on the hunt for a Giro stage win exactly 12 years to the day after his first victory on La Corsa Rosa, attacked from the pack alongside livewire Stefano Pirazzi (Bardiani-CSF) after the day’s early four-man break was swept up by the rampaging pack.
Nicola Boem (Bardiani-CSF), Matej Mohoric (Lampre-Merida) and Joey Rosskopf (BMC) had broken clear after 15 kilometres, soon to be joined by former Hour Record holder Matthias Brändle (IAM).
The advantage of the four leaders ebbed and flowed during a frantic first hour of racing during which 50.1 kilometres were covered as Cunego’s Nippo-Vini Fantini team ferociously chase the escapees after missing out on the move – at one point bringing the advantage down to as little as 10 seconds ahead of the hilly second half of the stage.
But once Nippo’s Romanian rider Eduard-Michael Grosu failed to bridge the gap after darting off in pursuit, the gap started to grow before stabilizing at around three minutes.
In a sign of things to come, Lampre-Merida’s Mohoric made the first attack from the break on the Cat.3 Bonifati climb 75 kilometres from the finish. The Slovenian was thwarted by Boem, however, who took maximum points ahead of the young American Rosskopf.
Less than 20 kilometres later and the break had imploded on the climb to San Pietro, paving the way for Cunego and Pirazzi to attack. Kittel and many of the other sprinters were soon distanced – and although the second peloton managed to regain touch before the decisive final series of climbs, the damage was done.
French duo Guillaume Bonnafond and Axel Domont rode clear for Ag2R-La Mondiale with 40 kilometres remaining which in turn shuffled the pack and resulted in the formation of the 12-man group in which Lampre pair Conti and Ulissi would eventually shine – and brilliantly so.
Wednesday's stage five from Praia a Mare to Benvento features some more rolling roads and a cobbled finish straight but could well see the sprinters return to the fold. Of all the stages of the race so far, however, this is the one most suited to a break – so we can expect fireworks from the outset on the slopes of the Cat.3 climb to Fortino.