By Gregor Brown in Como, Italy
Damiano Cunego, 27, silenced critics' rumblings and capped off a successful season with his third career victory in the Giro di Lombardia. The Italian spoke of his season after his solo victory along the famed waterfront.
Cunego's season was near perfect and only marred slightly by his performance in the Tour de France. He expected more from himself in the French Grand Tour after skipping the Giro d'Italia, a race he won at the ripe age of 22. His Tour performance easily washed away critics' memories of his performances in one-day races.
Before Cunego stormed the shores of Como solo adding to his 2004 and 2007 victories in the same spot he won the Amstel Gold, two Spanish races and finished runner-up to his teammate at the World Championships. It was a stunning season for the rider referred to as "Il Piccolo Principe" from Verona.
Not only did Cunego win Lombardia on Saturday, but he did it in a fashion that oozed class. Team Lampre worked all day for its captain with World Champion Alessandro Ballan leading the affairs. Cunego did not fail when it came time for his share of the work.
He followed the key moves on Madonna del Ghisallo and escaped with three others on Civiglio. Instead of riding out the final 16 kilometres in the move, Cunego went solo shortly after the summit.
"This is only the second time that I won solo," recalled Cunego of his 15-kilometre move the first came four years ago with a stage win in the Giro d'Italia. "It feels great!"
"It was difficult because I knew they were not far away. I had some doubts in the final, but I was the head of affairs. I left the 'bigs' on Civiglio and I held my own on San Fermo."
Cunego's advantage grew from nine seconds after the descent of Civiglio to 24 seconds at the top of San Fermo at the finish it was still 24 seconds. He allowed himself to enjoy the moment in the final kilometres.
"It has been a long time since I finished solo [winning]. In the last kilometre, I felt very secure of myself and I was taking in all of the public's applause."
Only three weeks had passed since he took silver at the World Championships in Varese. He dutifully watched the others scramble as his Italian teammate, Ballan, escaped clear for the rainbow jersey.
"To win would have been great, but that is the way cycling goes and a silver medal is still very important. I am happy all the same because my teammate won. If another country had won then it would have left a bitter taste in my mouth."
The season finale, with Worlds and Lombardia, backed up Cunego's spring performances. Winning Amstel Gold and Lombardia in the same year, and finishing on the podium in other big one-day races has cemented his stature as a one-day rider.
"The critics came out when I rode badly, but I kept my head throughout the year. Both Alessandro [Ballan] and I are athletes that go all year round. Everyone races in their own way and I prefer to race this way. ... The season was very good for me.
"The only thing that did not go well was the Tour de France this year. I did not train how I wanted to for the Tour de France."