Italian cycling fans hardly had time to mourn the death of former champion Marco Pantani when a new star emerged to assume Il Pirata’s mantle during the three-week Giro d’Italia: 2004 champion Damiano Cunego (Saeco).
Cunego, a fresh-faced rider from Verona who until this year was hardly known to the wider cycling public, scored a major upset when he held on to the pink jersey that he audaciously claimed at the start of this year’s race.
The fact that the 22-year-old Saeco rider defied his team captain, two-time winner and defending champion Gilberto Simoni throughout, has merely reinforced the authenticity of what was a well-deserved victory.
Cunego’s emergence could not have come at a better time for a country that is still coming to terms with the death earlier this year of Pantani, the former Giro and Tour de France winner.
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 approach to racing, for his age – have been impressive.
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 detractors, if any, could point to the fact that he is one of a fraction of athletes with a naturally elevated hematocrit level (over the permitted threshold of 50 percent), and despite this has the permission of the sport’s authorities to compete.
Haematocrit, the volume of red blood cells in the blood, is a key word in the sport of cycling. It is measured before races to determine if riders have been using banned blood-boosting substances.
After his victory Sunday, a great deal will be expected of Italy’s new cycling sensation. The country that has produced the likes of Pantani, Mario Cipollini, Alessandro Petacchi, Fausto Coppi and a host of others is always on the lookout for a new campionissimo (super-champion).
So far, despite his relatively young age, Cunego seems ready to fill those shoes. Asked during the Giro what he thought of the daunting Gavia climb, one of the hardest on the race, the Italian innocently but coolly replied: “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.”
McGee happy with Giro, looks forward to Tour
Australia’s Brad McGee took another step towards his dream of becoming a big Tour contender when he finished the Giro d’Italia in a very respectable eighth place overall on Sunday.
The 28-year-old Fdjeux.com rider had his own tour of duty in the maglia rosa, beginning with his victory in the race prologue, a 6.9 km time trial around Genoa.
However, McGee’s biggest achievement during the Giro may have been his sustained efforts to keep pace with the real contenders, a feat that is likely to vastly improve his chances of doing the same during this year’s Tour de France, although that depends how he manages resting and racing before the July 3-25 showpiece, which is really a different kind of suffering altogether.
“I’m particularly satisfied with my whole race,” said the Nice-based Australian after Sunday’s final stage to Milan. “I came here without any real ambitions in the general classification. I just took it day by day but wanted to test myself in the mountains as the leader of the team.
“On the climbs I managed to control my efforts pretty well and I was never really given occasion to worry. To finish six minutes behind Cunego is very satisfying.”
Petacchi calls McEwen his top rival
After winning a postwar-record nine stages during this year’s Giro, the apparently unstoppable Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo) is already being pressed about riding the Tour de France.
“I’ve only just finished the Giro and they’re asking me if I’m riding the Tour,” complained Petacchi.
Having wiped the tarmac with most of his Giro opposition, the Italian admitted that Lotto-Domo sprinter Robbie McEwen, who won the fifth stage before bowing out, was the only one to really worry him.
“The only one who caused me problems here was McEwen,” he said. “You can’t afford to make the slightest error against him. I think he’ll be my biggest rival at the Tour, along with (Mario) Cipollini (Domina Vacanze) – if he’s there.”
As regards his sprinting success, Petacchi said he had no secrets: “I work on my explosive power by climbing medium-sized hills, and I also do a bit of training behind the car.”–Copyright 2004/AFP