Cunego back in the hunt for the maglia rosa

Italian convinced he has a chance as sport becomes cleaner

Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Farnese Vini) has changed his mind and is now convinced he can compete for overall victory in this year's Giro d'Italia.

After struggling to compete against the big name contenders in recent years at both the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France, the little Italian had thrown in the towel and said he would focus on stage victories in this year's Giro.

But after strong performances on the dirt roads to Montalcino and then on the first mountain finish to Terminillo, Cunego now believes he can compete for the maglia rosa. Despite losing time early in the race in the Netherlands, he is currently ninth overall, 3:08 behind current leader Alexandre Vinokourov.

"I've been able to stay with the overall contenders so far so there's no reason not to race with them. I'm aiming big, I want to go for the Giro," Cunego told Gazzetta dello Sport.

"Montalcino and Terminillo convinced me that I don’t have to accept defeat. I knew that if I prepared well I could do something but it’s always nice when the results prove it."

Cunego won the Giro d'Italia in 2004, when he was just 22 years-old but has struggled to live up to the promise he showed that year. In recent years he has taken a stronger and stronger stance against doping and hinted last year that the overall standings of the Giro were likely to be rewritten even before Danilo Di Luca tested positive for EPO-CERA.

"I don’t like to say 'I was right' but it's a fact that the classifications have changed," he told Gazzetta.

"I win two or three important races every year, like Lombardy, Amstel and stages in other races. Perhaps I could have done better but people still cheer for me just like they did in 2004 when I won the Giro. Perhaps I'm even better supported than back then. The truth is that people have realised how things work some time ago and they appreciate what I do because it's all down to me."

Cunego insists that he has always raced clean. He has been linked to the ongoing Mantova doping investigation, but has denied any involvement. He said he has stopped worrying about what other riders might be doing but said it is time for riders to be given longer bans if they are caught.

"I've never been tempted. My family imprinting is too strong. I never got any pocket money as a boy. If I needed some money, I had to earn it. When you grow up like that, you don’t think about getting a little extra help."

"In the past it wound me up seeing riders who were not as good as me go twice as fast as me on the climbs. But I've stopped asking myself if someone is okay or not. You can't let it send you crazy. But in the last few days I've rediscovered that if I prepare a race as you have to, the other big names can't drop me"

Cunego wants lifetime bans for dopers

"The soft approach, that gives people a second or third chance, hasn't worked," he said. "I've nothing against people coming back, especially if they've been humble like Basso, but it's time to draw a line in the sand. Whoever makes a mistake has to disappear forever. We need to have a strong deterrent, it's time for severity."

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