By Gregor Brown in Saint Étienne
Italian Damiano Cunego's Tour de France may have come to an end after he crashed early on Thursday's stage 18 and finished the stage 20 minutes behind winner Marcus Burghardt (Team Columbia). The Lampre rider fell face first into a concrete barricade during the first hour of the 196.5 kilometre stage from Bourg d'Oisans to Saint Etienne. After receiving medical attention for a bloodied chin, Cunego was escorted to the finish by four of his team-mates.
"My tire went in a rut and I took flier," he said. "Thanks to my team-mates for waiting around. It was truly terrible and at least I was ready to get back on the move."
Cunego, who came into the Tour as a favourite for the overall win, crashed at kilometre 32 and landed on his chest and jaw. Several minutes passed before he could remount his bike, and he was in danger of missing the time cut on the stage.
"I was truly fortunate," said Cunego, who, with the help of his team-mates, Paolo Tiralongo, Marco Marzano, Daniele Righi and Massimiliano Mori arrived within the time limit. He was then taken to a medical clinic in Saint Étienne where he received five stitches on his chin and x-rays of his jaw, chest and hand and a scan of his spleen. The results are still unknown.
"I hope I don't have to go home and am in the condition to continue tomorrow," said Cunego.
Cunego's desire to continue on despite being battered from the crash and out of podium contention is not unusual, according to his directeur sportif Maurizio Piovani. He pointed towards last year's Vuelta a España as an indicator of Cunego's determination. Cunego crashed in stage one, but he persisted racing until stage 15 so that he would be ready for the end of season.
"At the Vuelta, even with the crash, he did well. He did well at the Worlds and Lombardia, but don't forget that he did it all at the Vuelta with 15 stitches on his body. He had six stitches on his knee, five on the elbow... He continued and that shows he also has the right mentality. He never said, 'I am going home.' He kept going through the end of the season. It shows his ability to recover, even in those conditions."
Keeping the faith
Piovani spoke with Cyclingnews before the stage about his rider's disappointing performance in the Tour. Cunego skipped the Giro d'Italia, a race he won in 2004, in order to focus specifically on the Tour with a podium place in mind. However, he lost time in the first week in the time trial and uphill finish to Super Besse, and then plummeted in the overall standings after being dropped on the stage to Hautacam as well as his target stage to the Italian ski resort of Prato Nevoso.
Piovani said he will sit down with Cunego next week to evaluate where the Italian might have gone wrong in his Tour de France preparations.
"After the Tour we need to analyse what went wrong and what went right," Piovani said. He asserted that Cunego is indeed a Grand Tour racer, despite what critics may say. "He is a great racer for the stage races, even if he showed here at the Tour that he is not going like at the 2004 Giro," stated Piovani. "Of course, now it is easy to stand back and say what we should have done. Next week, we will meet and we will discuss well what we did right and wrong."
Leading into the 2007 season, Cunego focused on improving his time trialling, but Piovani doesn't think he did so at the expense of his climbing abilities.
"Everyone says that he became better in the time trial and lost something in the climbs. He trained with the time trial bike to become familiar with the bike. He became better after becoming familiar with the job - warming up before the crono and managing them in a certain manner. This enabled him to become better in time trials.
"He will do specific warm ups for certain time trials - whether it is a mountain time trial, 13 kilometres or 53 kilometres. Even how to race within a time trial: if you saw, he went faster in second half than the first half of the Cholet time trial. If someone analyses the situation with detail they will make improvements."
Piovani said the he still has confidence in Cunego. "I will remain at his side even if many have lost faith in him - he is a great rider."