On Sunday, Damiano Cunego will bring the curtain down on his WorldTour racing career with a 34-kilometre time trial at the Tour de Suisse. It might not be the fairy tale ending he and his fans had hoped for, and there’s still the matter of the Adriatica Ionica Race and the Italian nationals to come on his race programme, but Cunego has found peace at the end of his 17-year career approaches.
“This is my last WorldTour race. After this, I will be present at Adriatica and then my last race will be the national championships at the end of June. Then I will finish my career. These are now the final days of my racing career,” Cunego told Cyclingnews at the Tour de Suisse.
Cunego and his Nippo-Vini Fantini team had hoped that he would close out his career at the Giro d’Italia in May. However, a wildcard slot did not materialize and the 2004 Giro winner was forced to alter his race schedule. The ‘Little Prince’s’ career has spanned two decades and overlapped with the Lance Armstrong years, several doping scandals within cycling and the recent years of anglophone domination.
“It’s been 17 years. It’s been a long career and my first year was in 2002. At the moment it feels okay but asking ‘how I feel’, I think that’s something you need to ask me in August or September. That’s when I can tell if you if I have regrets or if I’m happy,” Cunego said.
“Of course, I’ve got good memories of the Giro. I won there in 2004, and I’ve been fourth and fifth there. I’ve good memories. This year it could have been important to end my career with that race but unfortunately, someone didn’t give us an invitation. I don’t know why. I think it was just a business choice. I’m sad but after the news, I found a new solution. So, I did the Japan Tour and now I’m here at Suisse. I continue to say thank you to the Tour de Suisse for the invitation.”
The 2004 Giro will always standout as Cunego finest hour. Then, as a second-year pro, and supposedly at the Giro to support defending champion Gilberto Simoni, Cunego won four stages and the overall. He highlighted two particular stage wins as his favourite memories during his career, along with one edition of Il Lombardia, which he won three times. He also won two stages at the Vuelta a Espana, made the top ten at the Tour, finished second behind Alessandro Ballan at the Worlds and claimed Amstel in 2008. The 1999 junior road world champion was, for a number of years, one of Italy’s leading one-day specialists.
“I have a lot of memories. In 2004 when I won at Falzes, and also at Montevergine with the special jersey to ‘legalize my Cannondale.’ And the last Tour of Lombardy in 2008, for me that was special because I arrived at that race alone,” Cunego told Cyclingnews.
“I think I’ve realised that I have fans both in Italy but also in places like Japan. When I went there for the Tour of Japan I don’t think I had any fans there but the fans there had jerseys with my face, my picture and it was unbelievable. All I can say is that I hope Italy finds a new Classic talent. At the moment we have Nibali and Aru but we need an Italian rider for races like Liege and Amstel.”
Cunego’s next venture will see him remain in cycling as a coach with the Nippo-Vini Fantini squad. He will be a brand ambassador, while also setting up a training camp business in Lugano.
“I have a plan for my future. Until December I will remain inside the team as a coach and offer support. I’ll work between the riders and the management and I’ll also be present at some of the events for our sponsors. Nippo is one of our sponsors and they’re looking ahead to Tokyo 2020 and for next year I will remain in the team for fifty days, again working between the riders and the directeurs,” he said.
“Out of cycling, I have another important goal to follow. I have some business here in Lugano with probably a training camp. We’re looking at running camp for maybe U23 riders and we’ll have facilities like a gym, rooms, and maybe bikes. I think people will like riding with me.”
There is, of course, the small matter of racing to conclude with before Cunego hangs up his wheels. He vowed to make it into one final break at the Tour de Suisse but illness and a lack of form held him back. The nationals later this month will be his final outing, and while the chances of winning his final race are small Cunego would at least like to go out with one final performance.
“Winning… I don’t know. It’s not impossible but there are younger riders now and in every race, they are very competitive,” Cunego said. “For me, at 36, it’s difficult, but I’ll try.”