The little Italian rider has been torn between targeting stages and a good overall result in grand tours since winning the 2004 Giro d’Italia and the best young rider’s white jersey in the 2006 Tour de France.
He finished tenth in the 2006 Tour de France, crashed out in 2009 and was 29th overall in 2010. He seemed to have lost his climbing ability but rode consistently well in the mountainous Tour de Suisse until losing the overall lead to Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) in the final time trial.
Cunego is visibly leaner than in recent years after missing the Giro d’Italia to specifically prepare for the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de France. He seems to have benefited from sharing the pressure to get results at Lampre-ISD with Michele Scarponi and from the more direct, hands-on approach of new team manager Roberto Damiani, who replaced Giuseppe Saronni after the explosion of the Mantova doping investigation.
“Damiani has let me get on with my racing and training and has dealt with everything else going on in the team. That’s how it should be in a well-organised team,” Cunego told Cyclingnews.
“I’m 29 now and so I think I know what’s best for me. These days I prefer to just get on with things. Listening to what other people think just creates confusion.”
Best stage race result since 2005
Cunego wore the Tour de Suisse leader’s jersey for six days after riding well in the mountains but lost more than two minutes to Leipheimer in the final 32.1km time trial, losing overall by four seconds.
“It’s a pity I lost by so little but I’m happy with my performance. It’s actually my best major stage race result since finishing second in the 2005 Tour de Romandie,” he pointed out.
“It would have been nice to pay back my teammates for all the hard work they did but when I saw the time trial course I knew it was going to be virtually impossible to hold onto the lead. I tried and was actually on a good day. If I’d had a bad day I could have finished off the final podium.”
Staying under the radar at the Tour
Cunego will ride the Italian national road race championships in Sicily on Saturday but is focused more on the Tour de France than winning the red, white and green ‘tricolore’ jersey.
The Lampre-ISD team will be split between helping Cunego and Alessandro Petacchi, who won the green points jersey last year. Cunego will get some help in the team time trial from former Under 23 world time trial champion Adriano Malori.
“I want to do well in the Tour de France but I’m under no illusions how hard it will be,” Cunego said.
“I’ve learnt from experience to approach the Tour de France with care. I’ll see what happens in the first week, see how the other riders perform and then decide on my final objective. There are some stages that suit me but the route is also in my favour because of the limited amount of time trials.
"I’ve done everything right so far. This is the leanest I’ve been for a few years but it’s because I’ve done a lot of specific work for the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de France. In the spring I targeted the classics and then trained at altitude on Etna and clocked up a lot of climbing.
“I’m not one of the big favourites and so my game plan is to ride a little under the radar and let the other team leaders deal with all the pressure and responsibility for the race. Contador is the man to beat, with Andy Schleck perhaps the closest to him, at least on paper. Basso could be up there and fight for a place on the podium or in the top five if he goes well. I think the American riders will be a factor too. I saw how well Leipheimer was riding in Suisse and there’s also guys like Van Garderen and Horner.”
Cunego is critical of the delays in Contador’s Clenbuterol case from the 2010 Tour de France but defended his right to a fair legal process.
“I’ve seen what some people have said but I think it’s only right the Court of Arbitration decides on what is a very delicate case. It’s just a pity the whole process has gone so slowly. I don’t honestly think Contador will be affected by it all. He showed that at the Giro. He’s still going to be gunning for victory and that will make it much harder for all of us.”