Cunego a man for all seasons

ProTour standings Il piccolo principe reigns on the Cauberg Italian...

43rd Amstel Gold Race - PT

Netherlands, April 20, 2008

ProTour standings

Il piccolo principe reigns on the Cauberg

Italian Damiano Cunego from Cerro Veronese has won the 43rd edition of the Amstel Gold Race in a nine-man sprint towards the top of the famous Cauberg lump near Valkenburg, The Netherlands. The 26 year-old from the Lampre-Fondital team held off Fränk Schleck and Alejandro Valverde in his first participation in the Amstel Gold Race and went on to claim his first-ever victory in a Spring Classic. Last year's winner Stefan Schumacher couldn't live up to the expectations and finished in a second group that finished 45" behind the light-weighted Italian.

"I was very nervous and impressed," Cunego reacted after his win. "I have never ridden this race and tried to stay cool and follow the others. It's a surprise for me to win here, because I considered it as a test for the upcoming races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which I know much better. There are two important races left where I want to excel, but for sure tonight I'll go to bed satisfied," Cunego continued. "There were a lot of attacks and counterattacks during the finale and sometimes I bridged up the gaps myself. I realized it could make me tired, but I knew it was even harder to follow me," the winner of the Giro d'Italia 2004 said, pointing out that he was feeling exceptionally strong.

The 2008 edition of the most important Dutch cycling race was marked by multiple attacks, which were always quickly neutralized by the teams from the favourites. It was a nervous finale and the climbs of the Eyserbosweg and the Keutenberg didn't bring the expected fireworks, although there was an – unsuccessful – effort from Kim Kirchen and Johan Vansummeren. A little later Sergey Ivanov and Christian Pfannberger anticipated on attacks from the big guns by sneaking away between the Eyserbosweg and the Fromberg, with 17 kilometres to go. These two riders were joined by a group of seven riders including multiple pre-race favourites Fränk Schleck, Davide Rebellin, Damiano Cunego, Karsten Kroon and Thomas Dekker. This decisive breakaway approached the Cauberg with an advantage of 30" on a big group, including last year's winner Stefan Schumacher.

Spanish champion Joaquím Rodríguez Oliver (Caisse d'Epargne) neutralized late attacks from Kroon and Dekker and then led the leaders during the first part of the climb, all in support for his fast team leader Alejandro Valverde. "I talked to Valverde in the final kilometres, and he was going well and had good legs – I wanted to work for him," the Spaniard explained after the race.

When Fränk Schleck jumped away with 500 metres to go, right on the steepest part of the Cauberg, the Spanish champion was dropped, together with Pfannberger, Ivanov and Kroon, who also did some pulling on the final climb for his CSC team leader. The move of the Luxemburger was marked closely by Cunego, followed by Rebellin, Valverde and local favourite Thomas Dekker of Rabobank. A little later Schleck accelerated again and Rebellin had to let go of Cunego's wheel, creating a gap that had to be closed by Valverde. The latter didn't have the power left to come back and by then Dekker was dropped as well. The sprint was almost ruined as the sprinters almost headed into the deviation for the cars, but luckily nobody was hampered by the confusion. With about one hundred metres to go Cunego jumped out of Schleck's wheel and the feathery Italian speeded to his first win in the Amstel Gold Race.

Fränk Schleck - winner in 2006 – jumped away halfway the ultimate ascent of the Cauberg, but his move was neutralized by the little prince, Damiano Cunego. "The only chance for me to win, was trying to jump away before the sprint. I didn't want to do it, but in the radio Bjarne Riis shouted that I had to do it. It almost worked out, but Damiano knew he had to stay on my wheel. He did everything right," Schleck explained about the chosen tactics in the uphill sprint in Valkenburg.

There were a lot of fast legs in the group that fought for the victory and it was surprising to see that Alejandro Valverde Belmonte couldn't quite match the speed from Cunego and Schleck. Nevertheless, the Spaniard was happy with his performance. "The Spring Classics aren't a real objective for me this year," said Valverde, who wants to perform well in the Tour de France in July. "I didn't have anything left in the tank for the sprint. Clearly, Cunego is the well-deserved winner; he was the strongest man in the race, together with Schleck," Valverde added. Valverde also said: "I'm happy with third place as it is my best ever result in this race."

The runner-up from last year, Davide Rebellin couldn't keep up with the acceleration from Schleck and Cunego, and the 36 year-old had to settle for fourth place this year. "I knew that I could make the difference on the Cauberg. I was going well, but I was not super. It was up to Caisse to do the pulling, and then in the finale I was just hoping to ride on the wheel of a sprinter," said Rebellin to Cyclingnews. Too bad for the winner of this race back in 2004 that he couldn't hold on to the wheel of that sprinter, because it was the winner's wheel. The experienced Italian agreed that he wasn't good enough for the win in the end. "Cunego went really strong today and so he deserved this win," Rebellin concluded.

The man who started the winning break was Astana's Serguei Ivanov. But he paid for his efforts, when he jumped clear and was first joined by Pfannberger and then the others. "I had some cramps in the finale, and I couldn't pull the pedals like it should be on the climbs. That's why I tried to get away. I was in a very good position with Pfannberger but I was without a chance in the sprint," said the 33 year-old Russian. "I gave my best and I'm happy with my performance. I'm in top condition, but it's too bad there are no races left for me anymore," Ivanov reminded us about the non-selection from Team Astana for Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Today's protagonists who missed out for the win receive another chance on Wednesday with the Flèche Wallonne, and next week there's the Liège-Bastogne-Liège that concludes the Spring Classics season.

How it unfolded

The race started in Maastricht at 10:21am local time. 184 racers rolled across the start line. Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Scott) with a fever and Sebastian Langeveld (Rabobank) with ongoing knee problems did not start the race.

The break of the day formed around kilometre 35: Kristof Vandewalle (Topsport Vlaanderen), Albert Timmer (Skil-Shimano) and Yuriy Krivtsov (AG2R La Mondiale) were the lucky ones who jumped at the right moment. The peloton wasn't too worried about their escape, and the trio's lead quickly increased to a maximum of 12'43 at the Wolfsberg (the seventh of the 31 climbs to be mastered, some 86 Kilometres after the start).

However, after 100 kilometres raced, the peloton picked up the pace ever so slightly and the gap slowly started to shrink. Another 100 clicks later, with 54 kilometres to go, the breakaway's lead was down to 2'10. On the Wolfsberg (42 kilometres to go), as the charging bunch almost came within sight of the break, Niki Terpstra (Milram) bridged up to it and dragged the fatigued men along to the next hill, the Loorberg, where they finally got caught.

It was thus a race wide open in the final 40 kilometres, and the attacks didn't cease for some time before the final winning move could eventually distance itself.

First, it was young Dutch climbing sensation Robert Gesink (Rabobank) who jumped just after the break was caught, taking with him Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux), Kim Kirchen (High Road), Igor Astarloa (Team Milram) and Mario Aerts (Silence-Lotto). But those five were judged too dangerous and reeled back in before they could achieve a real gap.

Then, with 27 kilometres to the line, Carlo Scognamiglio (Barloworld) tried his luck, but in vain as the bunch was driven by Gerolsteiner, Rabobank, Lampre and Cofidis. Another Italian, Dario Cataldo (Liquigas) jumped with 23 kilometres to go, but also couldn't get away significantly and was caught on the Kruisberg.

The next attack came on the Eyserbosweg, some 18 kilometres before the finish. Kim Kirchen tried again, joined by Lotto's Johan Vansummeren, but the duo only made it to the descent of that climb. By that time, the peloton had significantly shrunk to only about 30 riders, and decision time drew near.

Astana's Serguei Ivanov made another attempt to distance the field with 17 kilometres to go, joined by Christian Pfannberger (Barloworld). The duo even managed a gap of 16 seconds, but it didn't last. However, both riders were still in contention even when the group of favourites caught them after the next-to-last climb, the Keutenberg, which made the peloton fall apart completely.

Rebellin, Cunego and Schleck were the first riders to bridge up to Ivanov and Pfannberger, as a lead group of nine riders emerged: Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), Serguei Ivanov (Astana), Joachim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), Thomas Dekker (Rabobank), Karsten Kroon and Fränk Schleck (CSC), Damiano Cunego (Lampre) as well as Christian Pfannberger (Barloworld).

With five kilometres left before the final ascent, the Cauberg, this group of nine, out of which Rebellin temporarily attacked, had some 20 seconds over a chase group, which included: Stefan Schumacher and Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R), Jérôme Pineau (Bouygues), Simon Gerrans (Crédit Agricole), Benoît Vaugrenard (FDJ), Kjell Carlström (Liquigas), Oscar Freire, Robert Gesink (Rabobank), Johan Vansummeren (Lotto) and Kim Kirchen (High Road).

This situation was unchanged as the lead group tackled the last kilometre. On the famous Cauberg leading up to the finish line, Rodriguez led Cunego and Valverde, while Pfannberger was at the back. Then, Kroon pulled hard for Schleck, who was behind Cunego. As Kroon pulled off, the Italian pushed on, with Schleck and Valverde in his wheel. But the Luxemburger ran out of juice as Cunego opened a gap. Valverde, too, was a little short to show his otherwise excellent sprinting abilities. Rebellin and Dekker finished fourth and fifth respectively.

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