Giro Countdown: Cunego ready; Zubeldia resolute; Osa, Beloki realistic

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By VeloNews Interactive, and wire services

Cunego ‘ready’ for Giro defense
Damiano Cunego said he’s arriving in peak form just in time to defend his Giro d’Italia title. Like arch-rival Ivan Basso, Cunego is also planning on racing in the Tour de France, so both riders are arriving to the Giro a little off peak fitness with the idea of being able to hit their stride for the decisive second half of the Giro.

“The victory at Romandie lifted the pressure from me for not having a win so far this season,” Cunego told Datasport. “I had some good feelings in the time trial in Lausanne, but obviously my condition wasn’t at the top. I have some room to improve and I think I can get stronger in the first week of the Giro.”

Last year, the then-unknown Italian rocketed to overall victory, to the surprise of many, but this year Cunego will be a marked man. Still, he says the mountainous route favors his style and the Lampre-Caffita co-captain did his homework, checking out several of the key stages in advance.

“It’s a challenging course, with a lot of mountains, which suits me,” Cunego continued. “Basso, the Spanish teams and Liquigas are the top rivals. Simoni? What’s important is someone wins from Lampre.”

Zubeldia forfeits Tour for strong Giro
Haimar Zubeldia, the Euskaltel-Euskadi rider who finished fifth in the 2003 Tour de France, is putting his July ambitions on hold to make a run for the maglia rosa.

“I go with all the intentions in the world,” Zubeldia said. “I had the intention of racing the Tour, but the team was required to race the Giro as well. We talked about it and they convinced me to go to Italy. According to how I finish, then I’ll decide if I go to the Tour or not. There, Iban Mayo will be the strong man on the team and I will be there to help.”

Throughout his career, Zubeldia has been slowly building his Tour credentials, but he says the sudden shift of focus to the Giro reflects a new reality in the ProTour.

“I’m not renouncing (the Tour), we’re dividing our forces,” Zubeldia insists. “They’ve bet on Mayo for the Tour and me for the Giro.”

In other team news, Joseba Zubeldia has been replaced by Igor Antón after the younger of the Zubeldia brothers spent the night vomiting and sick, according to a team statement.

Osa relishes Giro return
Unai Osa returns to the Giro d’Italia this weekend with hopes of recovering the positive sensations that carried him to third place overall in 2001. Since then, the once-promising Spanish hope has been hampered with injuries and mediocre results.

“I often ask myself what’s happened to me as well. My only answer is that my injuries have impeded me from evolving,” Osa said in an interview with the Spanish daily AS. “The fact is that I’ve lost the best years of my career.”

Now 29, Osa has suffered injuries to his knees and back. Even this year, early season health problems have curtailed his preparations for the Giro, where he’ll lead Illes Balears in the season’s first grand tour.

“Right now, I don’t see myself finishing on the podium, but in 2001 I never imagined I’d end up there. It all depends on how the race evolves,” Osa continued. “If I lose a lot of time early, then I will look for stage wins.”

Beloki not thinking to win in Giro
Joseba Beloki goes to the Giro d’Italia thinking about July, not overall victory.

The three-time Tour de France podium man is hoping to rediscover his winning legs after nearly two frustrating seasons since crashing out of the 2003 Tour in a horrible crash.

A frustrated Beloki said he was expecting more from the recent Tour de Romandie. He finished, but found little consolation in that accomplishment.

“I arrived at Romandie a little tired because I had trained very hard, but the truth is that I expected to be a little better,” Beloki told the Spanish daily MARCA. “Now I don’t have the excuse of the allergies that always pester me. I’m not going well and every time the peloton accelerated I was left behind. I returned from Romandie halfway depressed.”

Beloki will be working to help Liberty Seguros team leader Michele Scarponi and rack up some race-speed miles in his legs ahead of the Tour.

“I need some race days and I will end up wherever I end up,” Beloki said of his Giro aspirations. “If I can’t finish, there’s still the Bicicleta Vasca (in June).” Gerolsteiner rides with Montgomery
Gerolsteiner will ride the Giro d’Italia without star Davide Rebellin or last year’s King of the Mountains winner Fabian Wegmann. The former was tired from the Ardennes classics and the latter has decided to focus entirely on the Tour de France.

With Georg Totschnig and Levi Leipheimer also preparing for the Tour, the German team has turned to Sven Montgomery to lead the team in the GC. Montgomery seems to be back in top shape after struggling with injuries after a bad crash in the Tour a few years back.

The team will also be hoping to position Robert Förster in some of the sprints and encourage such riders as Frank Hoj and Markus Fothen to chase stage victories in breakaways.

Gerolsteiner for the Giro
Robert Förster
Markus Fothen
Frank Hoj
Sven Krauss
Andrea Moletta
Sven Montgomery
Volker Ordowski
Marcel Strauss
Thomas Ziegler