Two kilometres from the end of stage 8 of the Giro d’Italia, with the pink jersey group deadlocked as it approached the summit of Campitello Matese, a figure in garish navy and orange kit bounded clear alone. The colours were unfamiliar but the style was recognisable, and after a pause, the speaker at the finish line identified him: “Scatto di Damiano Cunego!” The crowds beneath the podium cheered. For a moment, it was yesterday.
When Cunego was swallowed up and spat out by Alberto Contador, Richie Porte and Fabio Aru shortly afterwards, it seemed as though the Nippo-Vini Fantini man’s show of defiance had been a cameo and nothing more, but he crossed the line just ten seconds down on the so-called Three Tenors and he lies in 14th place overall as the first week of racing draws to a close.
A repeat of his 2004 Giro victory is an impossibility, of course, and even matching the 6th place finish of three years ago feels like something of a stretch, but after a listless end to his sojourn at Lampre, Cunego has seemed a man re-animated in recent weeks. Speaking in Benevento on Sunday morning, he was optimistic about the remainder of his Giro.
“I’ll have to see,” Cunego said. “I’ve got good physical condition right now, that’s true, and I could get a decent place on the general classification but we’ll have to evaluate things after the time trial. I could lose a lot of ground there and at that point, I might have to start thinking about stage wins instead of the GC.”
In yesteryear, the opening week of this Giro would have been ideally suited to Cunego’s characteristics. The edition he won eleven years ago, for instance, also started in Liguria and snaked its way southwards over rippling terrain in the opening week, and the young upstart overtook Gilberto Simoni in the Saeco hierarchy by winning at Pontremoli and again at Montevergine.
This time around, Cunego held a largely watching brief as Aru, Contador and Porte traded blows on the Riviera and again at Abetone. In his 34th year, the puncheur of a decade ago sees himself as more of a diesel.
“Those guys are very strong, but up to now Saxo and Astana have taken the responsibility every day of working on the front to pull back breaks and they’re using up a lot of energy,” he said. “As for me, the more days go by, the more I feel I can express myself because I’m recovering well, and Saturday was maybe a demonstration of that. But the Giro is only just started and the big climbs have yet to come.”
While Contador, Aru, Porte and – perhaps – Rigoberto Uran seem on another plain, Cunego maintains that beneath that elite echelon, the field is very evenly matched. “It’s been a very nervous Giro so far, there’s been climb after climb, up and down all day, yet at the same time, the gaps on GC aren’t that big,” he said. “I think there are a lot of us who are at more or less the same level.”
The largest crowds at the start on Benevento’s Piazzale Risorgimento formed a cloister around the Astana bus and the most fervent cheers were reserved for Aru, who had tifosi trailing him like disciples and reaching out deliriously to touch his white jersey as he made his way to sign on.
There was a more sedate audience outside the nearby Nippo-Vini Fantini bus but Cunego retains a faithful congregation. When he emerged down the steps he was swarmed by iPhone-wielding fans, and he posed politely for a litany of selfies. He remains one of Italian cycling’s few marketable brands, and he is aware that his role at his new team is as much about name recognition as about winning races. A welcome change of pace, perhaps, after a decade of leading the line at Lampre.
“There’s more tranquillità,” Cunego admitted. “It’s a small team, a new team, it’s growing and it’s looking for visibility. There are riders who are looking to grow and gain experience by riding big races like this. And I think it’s a team with a big future.”
Speaking of the future, Cunego has already begun preparing for his cycling afterlife by beginning to study for a degree in sports science at the University of Verona – “It’s something different and it’s a bit of a thought towards a career after cycling too,” he explained – but a solid 5th place finish at the Giro del Trentino last month was proof, too, that he is not yet winding down towards retirement.
“The Giro del Trentino gave me a lot of faith in myself,” he said. “I knew I would go well there, because I’d done 20 days on Mount Etna beforehand and I was well prepared. I missed out on winning a stage but I got a lot of belief from it.”