Throughout his career, Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) has grappled with the question of whether he is better suited to the grand tours or the classics, perhaps without ever arriving at a wholly satisfactory conclusion.
The conundrum is one that will continue in 2012, for while Cunego is among the favourites for Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège this week, he also appears set to line up at the Giro d’Italia in May.
Cunego will return to Italy in the week between Amstel and Liège to ride the Giro del Trentino. Although he insists that the decision was taken primarily with La Doyenne in mind, he conceded that racing in Trentino would benefit his probable Giro participation.
“After Liège, we’ll have the final confirmation of whether it’s what we’ll do. Officially, we’ll have to wait until then because there are a series of decisions that need to be made about the team for the Giro,” Cunego told Cyclingnews in Lanaken on Saturday.
Michele Scarponi is all but certain to start, and given his status as the unwilling defending champion, he will expect to spearhead the team’s Giro challenge. Sitting aboard the Lampre-ISD team bus after a short training ride, however, Cunego warmed to the idea of teaming up with Scarponi in May. After all, his own Giro victory in 2004 was achieved in spite of a less than harmonious co-existence with Gilberto Simoni.
“I think that both of us could certainly be hard for the others to deal with. If we ride in a united way, it can only be to the advantage of the team if we’re both there,” Cunego said.
Solid showings at the Tour de Suisse and Tour de France last summer arguably marked Cunego’s best outings as a stage racer since those halcyon days of his youth. While he acknowledged that his 2011 preparation was centred largely on performing at the Tour de France, he is confident that he can balance classics and stage racing this season.
“I’m ruling out participating in the Tour this year because there’s so much time trialling,” Cunego said. “But this year, I have a decent condition, and I think I can feature well in both the classics and the big tours. I’m at the right weight, I’m going well on the climbs and my resistance is good.”
For now, Cunego’s thoughts are focused firmly on the two classics that bookend his participation at the Giro del Trentino. Winner of Amstel Gold Race in 2008, Cunego does not believe the slight change to the finale will alter the inalienable truth of the Dutch race – the final ascent of the Cauberg will once again prove decisive.
“I don’t think the changes will have much of an effect to be honest. The Cauberg is still the key point of the race and the finish is still the same,” Cunego pointed out. “Really, in any race of 250km, it’s about saving as much energy as possible before you get to the finale.”
Although Cunego has yet to win a race in 2012, he arrives in Limburg on something of a high after top ten finishes at both the Volta a Catalunya and the Tour of the Basque Country. “I didn’t win but I picked up a lot of WorldTour points,” he grinned. Racing on the Iberian Peninsula also gave him a chance to run the rule over some of his rivals for Sunday.
“Joaquim Rodriguez and Samuel Sanchez were definitely the most impressive of all down there, but there’ll also be Valverde,” Cunego said. “We’ll all have to keep an eye on Gilbert too even if up to now he hasn’t been going as well as he would have liked.”
While Cunego acknowledged that Rodriguez and Sanchez appeared to have an extra gear as they divided up the spoils at the Tour of the Basque Country between them, he was bullish about his chances of taking on the Spaniards at Amstel and Liège. After missing out on racing miles in February due to the cancellation of the Giro di Sardegna, Cunego was happy to get back into race rhythm in Spain.
“When they accelerated on the climbs, they were clearly superior to the others but I can only look at what I’m doing,” Cunego said. “I find that the more I race, the better I feel and the closer I get to their level. It’s not by chance that after six stages at the Tour of the Basque Country, by the time trial, I was more or less at their level. That’s a good sign ahead of Amstel and Liège."
Hence Cunego’s enthusiasm for riding the Giro del Trentino. “Yeah, it’s good training for Liège, plus when I did Trentino in 2006 I had my best Liège, when I came third,” he said. “I’ve done Flèche the other years and I never got to Liège in good condition as a result of it. It doesn’t do me much good to be holed up in a hotel for days the week of Liège, it suits me better to race.”
One blip on Cunego’s classics build-up has been his implication in the Mantova-based investigation into alleged doping practices at the Lampre team in 2008 and 2009. Cunego is one of 32 people named in a report made by public prosecutor Antonino Condorelli, and it is understood that a preliminary hearing in July will reveal whether those involved will face charges.
“I’ve read about in the newspapers of course, and they’ve written the usual things that they wrote about it in previous years,” said Cunego, who insisted that he was confident that he would be cleared of wrongdoing.
“The matter doesn’t particularly affect me. I’m not connected to the case, they [the media – ed.] probably write my name because it makes news, but I mustn’t let myself be distracted by it. I just continue to do my job well and honestly, like I’ve always done. For the umpteenth time they’ve written things that don’t come into it.”