News feature, October 21, 2007
Damiano Cunego returned to capture the Classic that capped his magical 2004 season, the Giro di Lombardia. The 26 year-old Italian of Lampre-Fondital proved to his detractors that he has the legs and brain to contend at the top of cycling's biggest races with his win Saturday in Como. Gregor Brown of Cyclingnews was at the finish to capture the reactions of the winner of the "Race of the falling leaves".
"My legs were always there throughout the season, and this time it was a success," said Damiano Cunego at Villa Olmo as the fall sun set over Lake Como. "I did my part in the finale without being offensive; I felt I had a good race."
Cyclingnews last saw the punchy rider at the airport traveling home from the World Championships in Stuttgart. He had done his job to ensure that Paolo Bettini defended his title for Italy, and he was looking forward to Lombardia and future World Championships.
"I think that this is a fruit of my good work at Stuttgart. Franco [Ballerini, Italian Directeur Sportif] had a lot of trust in me after my crash in Vuelta [a España stage one]. I thought he was not going to take me to the Worlds, even though I told him I would be there for the 30th of September and it went well.
" " -Damiano Cunego after his win at the Giro di Lombardia
"Not only Franco, but my team and sponsors had a lot of faith in me. Today was really beautiful win, and one for them."
By playing his role in the World Championships as a super-domestique and having an astonishing Lombardia, where he held off the charge of Samuel Sánchez, Davide Rebellin and Cadel Evans, proved that Cunego's potential is there as a top rider and as a leader for future World Championships.
"The Worlds this year was suited for Bettini," he said. "He had the characteristics to win a race like that. Next year, the Worlds in Varese, will be very much harder. I think that this year served to help form a group for next year. I made great connections that will bode well over the next years."
He reckoned that his year was not all that bad even if he did not have the big wins. In fact, he was always there for his major objectives, finishing seventh in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, fifth in the Giro d'Italia and fifth in the Tour de Suisse.
"I was always present in the important races this year, always in the placings but without wins," he stated. "I knew that I could get better and I always believed in myself. I had good planning, and I was focused for the season finale [Vuelta, Worlds and Lombardia - ed.]." He also acknowledged that a likely good fortune came into play for his second Lombardia win. "I was very lucky today; it was a long course with a lot of places for mistakes."
Riccò and Cunego held off their rivals on the final five kilometres from the top of San Fermo to the lake-side streets of Como. The younger Italian of Saunier Duval led out from the final kilometre, and when Cunego start the sprint at 75 metres out it was clear he would win.
"I started my sprint in a very agile gear," Cunego recalled. "After that many kilometres it is always hard to sprint. I shifted to a faster gear as we neared the line."
He was impressed with Riccò. "His attacks on the San Fermo were really strong. We held six to eight seconds on the descent, looking back you could always see the chase. I managed the situation the best I could I had to give it everything because he is very strong, also in the sprint."
Perhaps the awareness of the importance of Lombardia made the 2007 victory more special than 2004. "Maybe this one is better. I think that I have paid my sacrifices over the years. In 2004 I was young, now I know what it means to win a race like this."
His riding style suits the Grand Tours and demanding Classics like Liège and Lombardia. Maybe a repeat in Lombardia bodes well for a repeat in the Giro. "My best characteristics are being able to recover well. Also, for the one-day races I can also have my say. A race like Lombardia, it is very long and adapt for a rider who can go well over climbs and have something for the finale.
"I still don't know for next year Tour or Giro I still don't know. I have to look at the climbs that will be in the race. I think the Classics in the north are adapt for me, like Liège and Flèche, and then, at the end of the season, Lombardia."
And the Giro? "I still think a bis is possible. I know the others are also strong and try just as hard, but I think that inside me that there is the strength to win another Giro. I believe this. I won't change my mind because someone says something or another.
"I want to have good results. I hear the journalists, and I want to win. Also my team-mates, I want them to have their chances," he said diplomatically.
He does rule out Italy's other big one-day Classic, Milano-Sanremo. "It is a difficult course. I did it in 2006. There are the sprinters and the big rouleurs, and I am more of a climber. It is hard to beat those types of riders in a race like that. However, Liège is more for me. It has the climbs, but it also requires the head and tactics a very interesting race."
Over the years Cunego has become friends with Danilo Di Luca, who was not allowed to start Lombardia due to a disqualification by the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI). "I am very sorry for him," he said of the 2001 Lombardia winner. "I know that cycling is very hard right now, we seem to lose a lot these days. At times I lose hope in this sport. I am sorry about him not being here."
After a season of five wins, including today's Monument, it is time for the "Piccolo Principe" to relax. "I am going to Egypt for vacation. We wanted to go somewhere closer to home, versus Mexico. You know with a baby it is harder to travel the long distances. I think a nice week at the beach will be nice."