Lampre-Fondital likely while others wait
By Gregor Brown
Damiano Cunego rocketed on to the scene in 2004. In his third year as a professional Il Piccolo Principe swept Italy with wins in May's Giro d'Italia and the end-of-season classic Giro di Lombardia, securing his spot as number one ranked UCI rider for 2004. Those days he wore the red colors of Saeco, whereas today he is riding in the blue-pink colors of Lampre-Fondital but still with the same guiding force, Giuseppe Martinelli.
Director Sportif Martinelli discovered Cunego and the two moved to Lampre in 2005 when Saeco ended its sponsorship. Cunego's contract with the team managed by Giuseppe Saronni runs through 2007 but, according to La Gazzetta dello Sport, negotiations are underway to secure the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
Cunego is not the top paid Italian in the cycling business, that honor goes to Alessandro Petacchi and Paolo Bettini, both who are pulling in an estimated two million euro per year. Cunego is currently making around 1.2 million a year and is requesting to earn 1.5 from Lampre-Fondital for the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
Negotiations were underway with Saronni before Cunego left for the USA wind tunnel tests and his honeymoon in Mexico, and now, after just returning to Europe, he is reportedly scheduled to meet with Emanuele Galbusera of Lampre and Silvestro Niboli of Fondital in the coming days. With any luck the two business men will find the needed money for Il Piccolo Principe in the coming weeks; a decision is expected shortly after the 2007 Giro presentation (December 2).
If Lampre and Fondital fail to meet Cunego's needs there are other teams waiting in the wings. The Italian from Verona has stated his interest to stay with an Italian team, and according to La Gazzetta dello Sport he has had contact with Milram and Liquigas. But, both of those teams have leaders already at their call: Petacchi and Zabel for Milram, Di Luca and Pozzato for Liquigas.
Foreign teams who have their eyes on Cunego include Quick-Step, T-Mobile and non-ProTour Unibet.com. Transferring outside of Italy would make it even harder for Cunego to bring his men with him, which include trusted teammates Marzio Bruseghin, Paolo Tiralongo and Basque Patxi Vila, a mechanic and a masseur.
Then there is Martinelli. The 51 year-old Italian discovered Cunego when he was racing at the junior level. Cunego went on to win the 1999 junior world championships in Verona and has since been with Martinelli. The two have planned Cunego's three points of attack for the 2007 season: the Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Giro and a spot on the Italian team for the World Championships in Stuttgart.
In 2007 Cunego will be skipping the Tour de France, where this year he won the white jersey for best young rider. "I hope to come back here and win, not next year but in two years," said Cunego at the end of July. He will aim to return to France in 2008, where he will be riding under new contract, which at this point it appears likely to be with Saronni's Lampre-Fondital.