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Italy embraces a new cycling hero

The tifosi hardly had time to mourn the death of former champion Marco Pantani when a new star emerged to take over Il Pirata's mantle during the three-week Giro d’Italia. On Sunday, Italy’s most rabid cycling fans fully embraced their newest hero, the young Giro winner Damiano Cunego. The celebrations in the center of Milan underscored the Italian public’s adoration of the 22-year-old from Verona. Cunego was clearly living the dream Sunday, but he nonetheless maintained a keen awareness of his public image as he carefully answered a reporter’s question asking him to pick three words to

By VeloNews Interactive, With wire services

Cunego credits everyone on Saeco for the win

Cunego credits everyone on Saeco for the win

Photo: AFP

The tifosi hardly had time to mourn the death of former champion Marco Pantani when a new star emerged to take over Il Pirata’s mantle during the three-week Giro d’Italia.

On Sunday, Italy’s most rabid cycling fans fully embraced their newest hero, the young Giro winner Damiano Cunego. The celebrations in the center of Milan underscored the Italian public’s adoration of the 22-year-old from Verona.

Cunego was clearly living the dream Sunday, but he nonetheless maintained a keen awareness of his public image as he carefully answered a reporter’s question asking him to pick three words to describe his Giro win.

“’Unexpected,’ because I never expected to win four stages and the pink jersey” he said. “’Emotional,’ because of the support of the tifosi along the road is an incredible sensation. ‘Moving’ because this win is a team win, one by the whole of the Team Saeco staff and no one is excluded”.

The fact that Cunego found himself in defiance of his team captain, two-time winner and defending champion Gilberto Simoni throughout, has merely reinforced the authenticity of what was a well deserved victory.

“We’ve cleared things up and I want everybody to give him the praise he deserves for his part in this victory,” Cunego said. “Perhaps we will never ride another major stage race together, but it’s still too early to say.”

Cunego’s emergence could not have come at a better time for a country which is still coming to terms with the death earlier this year of former Giro and Tour de France winner Pantani.

Although Cunego himself has brushed aside comparisons of him as ‘the new Pantani’, it is hard to ignore the similarities between the two.

Cunego’s attacking style, and capacity to hold on for sustained periods in the mountains – added to his relatively cold-blooded attitude, for his age, while racing – have impressed.

Above all, Cunego appears to possess the capacity to recuperate quickly, which is a huge advantage in the longer Tours where fatigue is a major factor. His few detractors have pointed to the fact that he is one of a fraction of athletes who has a naturally-elevated hematocrit level (over the UCI’s permitted threshold of 50 percent), and has the permission of the sport’s authorities to compete.

Hematocrit is measured before races to determine if riders have been using banned endurance-boosting substances like EPO. Cunego – like former American pro Jonathan Vaughters – has received special dispensation from the UCI after providing extensive medical documentation to support the claim that his level is naturally higher than usual.

After his victory Sunday a lot will now be expected of Italy’s new cycling sensation. The country which has produced the likes of Pantani, Mario Cipollini, Alessandro Petacchi, and going further back, Fausto Coppi, is always on the lookout for a new campionissimo.

Despite his relatively young age, Cunego seems already to fill those shoes well. Asked during the Giro what he thought of the daunting Gavia climb, one of the hardest on the race, Cunego seemed nonplussed.

“I was so concentrated I didn’t have time to admire the countryside. What climb were you talking about? The first or the second one on the stage? In any case, it was great to be climbing up some of the Giro’s legendary climbs with the pink jersey on my back.”

Cunego said he was now turning his attention to this year’s world’s in his home town and the Olympics. One thing he won’t do is rush his career along so quickly that he burns out at an early age.

“I’m already thinking about the world championships in Verona and the Olympic Games in Athens are also a dream,” he said. “I’m not going to ride the Tour de France this year and perhaps not even next year.”