By Andrew Hood
Damiano Cunego ended his dream season much like he started it: attacking with panache and winning.
The 23-year-old Saeco rider barnstormed through the 2004 Italian racing calendar, racking up 12 wins in one-day races, short stage races and the granddaddy of Italian racing, the overall title at the Giro d’Italia.
And Cunego had one more surprise to cap his breakout year. Following disappointment in the road world championships two weeks ago in his hometown, Cunego couldn’t be beat in the Giro di Lombardia on Saturday.
Cunego outsprinted Michael Boogerd (Rabobank) and compatriot Ivan Basso (CSC) to take the final major race of the European racing season. It was an emphatic victory to what’s been an emphatic season.
“This victory means a lot to me,” said Cunego after winning a five-up sprint. “It’s been a season of great satisfaction for me. I was good in the end, though I am certainly feeling it. Now I will take a short break before starting to think about the Giro and perhaps even the Tour de France.”
The battle for the overall World Cup title ended as Paolo Bettini promised. Quick Step’s Olympic champion fought hard to fend off an attack by arch-rival Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) late in the race to claim his third crown in as many years.
As the World Cup series will be phased out ahead of the 30-race Pro Tour series set to debut in 2005, Bettini was more than happy to take the 10-round series’ title and the glass globe that goes with it.
Hilly course decides Cup
The 161 starters were visited by the UCI “vampires” before the start of the 98th edition of the classic of the “falling leaves,” with 31 riders from four teams – Alessio-Bianchi, Gerolsteiner, Vini Caldirola and De Nardi – all being declared apt to start.
Several riders tried in vain to pull away early after rolling out of the start in the Italian-speaking region of southern Switzerland, including two-time defending champion Michele Bartoli (CSC). But it wasn’t going to be the warrior’s day. Instead, Team CSC was intent on putting Ivan Basso in contention.
Eventually, five riders — Paolo Tiralongo (Panaria), GP Zurich champ Juan Antonio Flecha (Fassa Bortolo), Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Illes Balears), Manuel Quinziato (Lampre) and Gregory Rast (Phonak) — chugged clear of the early action to form a leading quintet. Gerolsteiner was taking charge back in the peloton, and the leaders never got more than four minutes off the front. The group disintegrated over the middle climbs of the race and was eventually neutralized with about 60km to go.
With 50km remaining, the race began in earnest on the Madonna del Ghisallo climb, with CSC’s Jörg Jaksche taking an early pull to put the hurt on the main bunch. Basso led the charge up the steep climb, quickly trimming the lead group to about 30 riders.
Bettini was dropped under the pressure, but didn’t panic and rode his own pace. It was still a long way to the finish but Rebellin was able to keep pace with the favorites on the difficult climb.
Basso led the way with Cunego, Cadel Evans (T-Mobile), Boogerd, Francesco Casagrande (Vini Caldirola) and a handful of others. No one seemed interested in setting the pace, leaving Basso to work alone as Bettini continued to set a steady pace just a few seconds back.
Basso cleared the top of the Madonna del Ghisallo alone, but chasers Rebellin and Casagrande caught back on during the narrow, treacherous descent. American Chris Horner, riding for his new Saunier Duval team, was working with the Bettini group some 25 seconds back, putting in a fine race to finish in 11th place. It all came back together with 40km to go, with Bettini and Rebellin in the lead group of about 25 riders.
Bettini stayed glued on Rebellin’s wheel from there. There were a flurry of attacks and counter-attacks in the frenetic final kilometers, resulting in a group of six pulling away, including Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) and Daniele Nardello (T-Mobile).
More riders came through, including Jaksche, to neutralize the move coming up the Civiglio climb with 18km remaining. Isidro Nozal (Liberty Seguros) attacked out of the lead group, but Basso and Cunego led the main chase.
A half-dozen pulled clear on the treacherous descent, leaving the final climb at San Fermo della Battaglia as the decisive battleground. Cunego led the way, with Basso, Boogerd, Nozal, Evans and Dario Frigo (Fassa Bortolo) trying to hang on.
With the leaders off the front, Rebellin eventually succumbed to the pace. While Bettini eventually would fold as well — he fended off Rebellin’s attack on the Madonna del Ghisallo, but finished in 28th place, more than one minute behind Cunego — the damage was done. Rebellin, winner of Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, could only watch as Bettini took his third straight globe.
“I just couldn’t match the pace,” the Gerolsteiner rider said. “The World Cup has been won by the strongest. I might have won two races, but the winner comes from who is the most consistent. Paolo has demonstrated he’s that man.”
Bettini, the only cyclist to win the World Cup three times, took the trophy this year without a single victory, capitalizing on top placings.
“There’s no problem between Davide and me, we’re professionals and we raced to the end,” Bettini said. “He attacked me today, but I was strong enough to be able to defend myself. Rebellin is a great racer and I am content to have been able to achieve this victory.”
Basso, Boogerd and Evans seemed to have the race in their hands heading up the final pitches of the Fermo della Battaglia climb, but Cunego had something else in mind. The pint-sized Veronese dug deep to bridge up to the leaders on the final descent with just 4km to go.
It was a smart move, because Cunego knew he would be the fastest sprinter in the bunch. Not only is he a dangerous climber, Cunego has one of the most useful sprints in the game, and more often than not will win in a situation like this.
Nardello also dug deep to bridge to make it a fivesome coming in for the finale. With Cunego the clear favorite, others tried in vain to slip away in the final two kilometers. T-Mobile had the numbers, and Nardello and Evans tried to yo-yo the group, but Cunego and Basso worked together to squash each foray.
Basso tried an early sprint with 400 meters to go, but Cunego came around to snag the victory. Boogerd came through second while Basso earned a well-deserved podium.
It’s great to finish the season with a victory even if I have another race left in Japan,” Cunego said afterwards. “Of course to win the Tour of Italy, that is the pinnacle for any Italian rider. But winning a World Cup race like the Tour of Lombardy, that’s really something.”
Tour of Lombardy
1. Damiano Cunego (I) Saeco, 246km in 6:17:55 (39,056kph)
2. Michael Boogerd (Ned), Rabobank, same time
3. Ivan Basso (I), CSC, s.t.
4. Cadel Evans (Aus), T-Mobile, s.t.
5. Daniele Nardello (I), T-Mobile, at 0:02
6. Maarzio Bruseghin (I), Fassa Bortolo, at 0:17
7. Eddy Mazzoleni (I), Saeco, s.t
8. Dario Frigo (I),Fassa Bortolo, s.t
9. Franco Pellizotti (I), Alessio-Bianchi, s.t
10. Luca Mazzanti (I), Panaria, s.t
11. Chris Horner (USA), Saunier Duval, s.t.
12. Erik Dekker (Ned), Rabobank, s.t
13. Ondrej Sosenka (Cze), Acqua & Sapone, s.t
14. Isidro Nozal (Sp), Liberty Seguros, s.t
15. Giampaolo Caruso (I), Liberty Seguros, at 0:25
16. Vladimir Duma (Ukr), Landbouwkrediet-Colnago, at 0:44
17. Cedric Vasseur (F), Cofidis, at 0:49
18. Sergei Gonchar (Ukr), De Nardi, s.t
19. Vladimir Goussev (Rus), CSC, s.t
20. Joachin Rodriguez (Sp), Saunier Duval, s.t
21. Ruslan Ivanov (Rus), Alessio-Bianchi, s.t
22. Matthias Kessler (G), T-Mobile, s.t
23. Michael Rasmussen (Den), Rabobank, s.t
24. Francisco Vila (Sp), Lampre, s.t
25. Tomas Nose (Slo), Phonak, s.t
26. Francesco Casagrande (I), Vini Caldirola, at 1:25
27. Rinaldo Nocentini (I), Acqua & Sapone, at 1:40
28. Davide Rebellin (I), Gerolsteiner, s.t
29. Paolo Bettini (I), Quick Step, s.t
30. Leonardo Bertagnolli (I), Saeco, s.t
31. Igor Pugaci (Mol), De Nardi, s.t
32. Fabia, Jeker (Swi), Saunier Duval, at 1:54, s.t
33. Jörg Jaksche (G), CSC, at 2:10, s.t
34. Patrik Sinkewitz (G), Quick Step, s.t
35. Andrea Masciarelli (I), Vini Caldirola, at 2:15
36. Pieter Weening (Ned), Rabobank, at 3:06
37. Maxime Monfort (B), Landbouwkrediet-Colnago, at 3:39
38. Dmitri Fofonov (Kaz), Cofidis, at 3:39
39. Massimo Codol (I), Fassa Bortolo, at 4:33
40. Bram Tankink (Ned), Quick Step, s.t
41. Christophe Brandt (B), Lotto-Domo, at 5:11
42. Roberto Sgambelluri (I), Vini Caldirola, s.t
43. Unai Osa (Sp), Illes Balears, s.t
44. Marcos Serrano (Sp), Liberty Seguros, s.t
45. Marco Fertonani (I), Phonak, at 7:05
46. Pablo Lastras (Sp), Illes Balears, at 7:16
47. Steve Zampieri (Swi), Vini Caldirola, at 8:16
48. Sylvester Szmyd (Pol), Saeco, s.t
49. Uros Murn (Slo), Phonak, at 9:21
50. Karsten Kroon (Ned), Rabobank, s.t
51. Bazhenov (Rus), s.t
52. Patrick Calcagni (Swi), Vini Caldirola, s.t
53. Filippo Simeoni (I), Domina Vacanze, s.t
54. Michael Rogers (Aus), Quick Step, s.t
55. Juan Fuentes (Sp), Saeco, s.t
56. Bo Hamburger (Den), Acqua & Sapone, at 11:43
57. Jurgen Van Goolen (B), Quick Step, s.t
58. Alessandro Vanotti (I), De Nardi, s.t
59. Daniel Schnider (Swi), Phonak, s.t
60. Frédéric Bessy (F), Cofidis, s.t
61. Sergei Adveyev (Ukr), Landbouwkrediet-Colnago, s.t
62. Ruslan Gryschenko (Ukr), Landbouwkrediet-Colnago, s.t
1. Paolo Bettini, Italy, 340 points.
2. Davide Rebellin, Italy, 327.
3. Oscar Freire, Spain, 252.
4. Erik Dekker, Netherlands, 251.
5. Juan Antonio Flecha, Spain, 140.
6. Steffan Wesemann, Germany, 131.
7. Peter Van Petegem, Belgium, 105.
8. Igor Astarloa, Spain, 96.
9. Mirko Celestino, Italy, 72.
10. Leon Van Bon, Netherlands, 68.
1. T-Mobile, Germany, 69 points.
2. Rabobank, Netherlands, 68.
3. Gerolsteiner, Germany, 47.
3. Fassa Bortolo, Italy, 47.
5. Lotto Domo, Belgium, 45.