By Andrew Hood
Nothing was going to spoil Damiano Cunego’s good mood after winning in Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race. Not even a journalist asking him if he still believes he can be a GC threat in grand tours.
In fact, it’s the question that perhaps Cunego is better suited to the classics than three-week tours that sometimes irks Italy’s “Little Prince.”
Despite some hiccups since his breakthrough 2004 Giro d’Italia victory, he’s never lost faith that he can shine in both.
With a cold beer in his hand and thoroughly enjoying the afterglow of beating archrival Frank Schleck in a thrilling duel up the Cauberg, Cunego said he’s out to prove it this year.
“I believe I am a rider who’s capable of doing well in both the spring classics and grand tours,” Cunego said. “I still believe I’m capable of riding well for three weeks and I’d like to confirm it this year with a strong ride at the Tour de France.”
Grand tour riders roaring across the hilly Ardennes is nothing new. Even in today’s specialized peloton, riders who shine in the second half of April regularly show up on podiums in May and July.
Cunego’s strong ride Sunday, however, will only fuel the already healthy debate inside Italy’s cycling community that perhaps he’s misguided in his efforts to take aim at the grand tours.
Some insist he’s reached the point, just like Paolo Bettini and Davide Rebellin before him, to admit he’s simply better suited for one-day classics and shorter stage races than the longer, more challenging three-week grand tours.
Cunego refuses to buy into that argument. Time is still on Cunego’s side. He’s still just 26 and is riding into the best and strongest years of his career, but even he admits he hears the doubters.
“It’s an interesting question, one that I get asked a lot,” Cunego said. “I still believe with good preparation for a grand tour I can do well.”
Ever since he became the youngest Giro winner in 20 years when he won the 2004 Giro at only 22, has sometimes struggled to meet the huge expectations shoveled on him by fans, media, his team and even himself.
He’s done reasonably well at three subsequent Giro runs (18th in 2005, 4th 2006, 5th 2007), but hasn’t blown the socks off everyone like some expected after he won four stages and the overall in 2004’s blistering exhibition. There have been no subsequent Giro podiums or even stage wins; hardly the way he wanted to follow up his dramatic 2004 crown.
Cunego admits that he still has to confirm his Giro crown but believes he’s on the right track with his plan to race the Tour for the second time of his career and remind everyone that he can still be counted on as a consistent GC threat.
For the first time since his 2003 Giro debut, he’s shooting to race for yellow come July instead of chasing pink in May.
“This year’s Tour is better suited for me than the Giro. There are fewer kilometers of time trials and some beautiful climbs. It fascinates me,” Cunego said. “Winning the white jersey was a beautiful experience. I did pretty well in my first Tour, now I will go back with more confidence. I will go to the Tour convinced of my own abilities, but without presuming too much. The Tour does not forgive.”
On the right kind of course, Cunego can do well over three weeks and this year’s Tour looks promising, with shorter time trials and some unpredictable mountain stages where he can blow apart the peloton.
In 2005, Cunego was zapped with the Epstein-Barr virus that cancelled his planned Tour debut that year.
His promising Tour debut the following year saw him finish 12th overall and claim the best young rider’s jersey ahead of such touted rivals as Markus Fothen and Alberto Contador.
This year, he believes he can do even better, and is taking aim at a top 10 and a stage victory.
Whether he can ever confirm his Giro pedigree with another big win or podium remains to be seen, but what remains unquestioned is Cunego’s growing classics credibility.
Coupled with his two Giro di Lombardia victories and a third at the 2006 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, his victory Sunday nudges him into an elite club of younger riders with three victories in cycling’s so-called “monuments” and other former one-day World Cup events.
Of riders born after 1980, only Tom Boonen, with four classics wins, has more than Cunego’s three.
Cunego is flying high into 2008 and it could turn out to match his charmed 2004 season, when he ended the season ranked No. 1 with 13 victories.
He’s is enjoying his best spring since he won five times en route to his 2004 Giro blowout.
So far in 2008, he’s won three races within 10 days, picking a stage at País Vasco and the Klasika Primavera in Spain before raiding Amstel Gold.
He’s also beating quality riders that he’ll see in the Tour later this summer, knocking off Alejandro Valverde in Klasika and Schleck in Amstel.
In fact, it was his shoot-out duel against Schleck up the Cauberg that put Cunego in such a good mood.
Schleck upstaged Cunego in the 2006 Tour, when Tour rookie Schleck ended up 10th overall and dropped Cunego en route to winning at l’Alpe d’Huez.
Maybe the stars will align one more time for the Little Prince.