At various points in the seven years since his youthful Giro d'Italia victory, Damiano Cunego has hinted at permanently renouncing all general classification ambitions in the grand tours. But old habits die hard for the Lampre-ISD rider, and he lines up in this year's Tour de France with an open mind about his chances of securing a high overall finish.
Cunego's burden of expectation has eased considerably since that halcyon summer of 2004, while the disappointment of his recent Tour de Suisse defeat was offset by the effervescence of his performance, and he cut a distinctly relaxed figure in Le Puy du Fou on the eve of the Tour.
The Tour's undulating opening week appears to be well-suited to a rider with Cunego's punchy characteristics, but in his 30th year, the 'Little Prince' is perhaps more cautious in his approach to stage racing than he was in his youth. While his 2004 Giro win was characterised by some impetuous attacking in the opening week, Cunego is keen to keep something in reserve for the latter part of this Tour.
"I've seen that there are some nervous stages that are suited to attackers but I think that in a race like the Tour de France, you also need to manage your energy because it lasts for three weeks," Cunego pointed out. "It'll be important to take care not to use up all the energy you have in the first week, and I'm more interested in being stronger as the days go by."
The strength in depth of the Tour peloton and the caliber of the riders who are aiming solely at the race's opening nine days means that Cunego does not have any stage in the opening week earmarked for himself.
"You need to be consistent day after day and not try to do it all too quickly because there will be a lot of well-prepared riders here aiming specifically to take the yellow jersey early on," he pointed out.
Cunego lost the yellow jersey to Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) on the final day of the Tour de Suisse by just four seconds, but in spite of the cruel nature of that narrow defeat, the Italian agreed that it had been his best showing in the high mountains for quite some time.
"It was a pity not to win, of course, but I'm certainly happy too," Cunego said. "It was never going to be easy to win it with a time trial like that, but I have to be happy with the good final placing."
After his resurgent Swiss campaign, Cunego was widely tipped to return south of the Alps and win the Italian national road race title last weekend. However, he struggled to make an impact in Sicily, and the tricolore jersey stayed on the shoulders of Giovanni Visconti (Farnese Vini-Neri).
"It was a really difficult day because I also hadn't really recovered from the efforts of the Tour de Suisse," Cunego explained. "I'd stayed at home the week in between but I still didn't feel great, although maybe it was to be expected.
"Afterwards I just turned my mind towards coming to France, and now the objectives that count are the ones that I have here."
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