February 14th, the tenth anniversary of Marco Pantani's death, will be a difficult day for Italian cycling, and in particular for those riders - of whatever nationality - who knew Pantani directly. Former Giro winner Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida) raced alongside Pantani in 2002 and 2003 and he described ‘the Pirate' as an "inspiration for me when it came to the mountain climbs and how he tackled them."
"He was an example for me, I was a schoolboy when he was racing" - at his peak - "and so for me he was an idol," Cunego told Cyclingnews this week.
"There's only ever been one Pantani, very few riders are even slightly similar to him. We raced together a bit, we talked too. He was a nice person despite everything that was said and written about him."
Cunego recalls he was at home when he heard the news of Pantani's death, and that "despite all the rumours, nobody expected it to happen. He had been through a hard time, people criticized him, but only he knew what happened."
For Cunego himself a decade later, racing in 2014 will be similar to previous years in terms of the number of days, although his schedule is only decided up until June. He will do Tirreno-Adriatico, the Ardennes Classics and the Giro d'Italia. "After that I'll have a break, then we will see what I do in the second part of the year. The Tour is definitely not on the schedule, but the Vuelta could be an option."
Speaking to Cyclingnews on the last day of the Mallorca Challenge, the 32-year-old refuses to specify what his objectives will be in the Giro, saying "first I have to find myself, to be competitive and up there in races. If that happens, there'll be no problems. I wanted to be relaxed, not have too many big objectives from the word go.
"But in any case I'm working well, the weather's been good here and I'm riding at the level I wanted to."
The arrival of Chris Horner in the Lampre-Merida team at the last minute "is very important, the same as Rui Costa. They're riders who are very experienced, and we'll see how our roles work out. Right away from these first race things have been going well with Chris. He's a good guy and he knows what he's doing and his race strategies are very sound."