Damiano Cunego is no longer the Little Prince of Italian cycling, at 33 and past his best, but he showed a flash of his class on stage 2 of the Giro del Trentino, finishing third behind Richie Porte (Team Sky) and Michel Landa (Astana) on the mountain stage to Brentonico.
Cunego won the 2004 Giro d'Italia and remains the last Italian to win one of cycling's Monuments after taking a third victory at the Tour of Lombardy in 2008. He has struggled to be competitive in recent years and joined the Nippo-Vini Fantini Professional Continental team this season after a decade in the bright pink and blue Lampre colours. The change to Nippo Vini Fantini's bright orange and blue colours seems to have helped rediscover some of the form of his youth and he insisted he is looking forward to leading the young team at the Giro d’Italia.
"I was racing to try and win the stage today," a lean-looking Cunego said at the podium area after the stage finish. "I think I raced well but I have to accept the superiority of the young guys in the peloton these days. I can sense that they’re ambitious, like I was at their age when I won a lot. But despite being 33, I'm able to be up there with them when I’m on a good day.
"It didn't come off today because Porte was just too strong but I'll try to do something again tomorrow and on Friday. I want to leave my mark on the race. Thursday's stage to Fierozzo seems tougher than Friday's final stage in the Val di Non but there’s never an easy day at the Giro del Trentino. I know because I've won the Giro del Trentino three times and went close to winning for a fourth time in 2012."
Cunego has suffered in silence in recent years, refusing to speak about his lack of results and its cause. The Nippo Vini Fantini is packed with young riders, including Vincenzo Nibali's brother Antnio. Cunego is both a road captain and role model. He also helped the team secure a wild card invitation to the Giro d'Italia.
"I hope this is a good sign for the Giro d'Italia, for what I can do at there," he said. "I recently spent 20 days at altitude in the mountains and that's really important these days if you want to go well. There's still time to wok on my form and so I'm optimistic about the Giro d'Italia."
Cunego is never afraid to speak his mind and was full of praise for Richie Porte and the way he dispatched his rival on the final climb to Brentonico, refuting any idea that Porte could be near his best well before the decisive mountain stage at the Giro d'Italia.
"He's shown he's got something extra on the hardest parts of the climbs. But that's natural, he's a huge talent. He could go even stronger at the Giro d'Italia that he's going now at the Giro del Trentino," Cunego warned.