By Gregor Brown in Ans
Italy's Damiano Cunego, winner of the Amstel Gold Race last week, found the task of winning hotter and harder in the 94th Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The 26 year-old formed part of a key escape in the 261-kilometre race in Belgium, but backed off with only five kilometres to remaining.
"It was a difficult day, above all because of the temperatures...,” confirmed the 2004 Giro d'Italia winner following his post race shower.
Cunego was in the top eight, working in a group with Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), Joaquím Rodríguez (Caisse d'Epargne) and Christian Pfannberger (Barloworld), but the final climb of the day, the Côte de Saint-Nicolas, put paid to Il Piccolo Principe. "I went hard pretty much all of the day, but then on the last climb, the Saint-Nicolas, I had cramps. At that point I thought, 'ah, maybe it is better to let this one go today.' Maybe I paid a little with the heat."
He acknowledged the race winner, Spain's Alejandro Valverde, for his work in obtaining Liège-Bastogne-Liège victory number two. "Compliments to Valverde," continued the rider from Verona. "He had a great race. Also, [Davide] Rebellin, [Fränk] Schleck. They stayed up front – very good for them."
The Côte de la Roche aux Faucons and the damage done
Going into the race, voices were heard from all quarters regarding the new penultimate climb of Côte de la Roche aux Faucons. The 1.5-kilometre rise did the trick – it punched Cunego and his companions, leaving them to be collected by the chase group.
"It is a shame that I did not take advantage of the climb," Cunego noted of the rise, which replaced the Côte du Sart-Tilman. "I would say that with this change Liège has become even harder."
After the Roche aux Faucons, Cunego's group lost time to the leaders. "It seemed like there were a lot of us without legs in our group; it was a difficult task for us to try to renter the group."
Cunego was not only hit with the new côte, but the long-range attack of Luxembourg's Andy Schleck. The move on the Côte de la Redoute, 35 kilometres remaining, was one that put the favourites on the defence.
"What was different with this year was the attack early on by Andy, on the Redoute. Maybe it did not seem so strong on TV but for all of us, we were already at our limits," confessed Cunego.
"I saw that all of the guys were going all out and [were] tired. I think there was a head wind. A lot of riders were tired, but those [four] were feeling good could not wait for the moment to go on the last climb."
Summing it up and heading forward
Cunego can leave the northern run happy – first on Amstel's Cauberg and third on Flèche Wallonne's Huy – and look ahead to the summer, where he will be skipping the Giro d'Italia for the Tour de France.
How does he rate his performances? "It is hard to give myself a vote, but surely, I give myself a ten for the first two races, Amstel and Flèche. Today, I don't know... I felt like I was not at my best.
"I am sorry because, well, overall we had a great campaign in the north," he added, referring to Alessandro Ballan's Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix. "I would have preferred to do something more here in Liège, the desire was great but it did not work out."
He did get a chance to view his competition for France's Grand Tour dates. "I think that Evans was also having a little bit of a hard day," he commented. "I think that, yes, you can see some of the Tour competition here in Liège, but the adversaries are always there, [Fränk] Schleck, Valverde, Evans. We were all there.
"I will try to prepare in the best way, there is a lot of time in front of me to prepare. Now, I will rest."