After a disastrous 2013 Damiano Cunego is hoping to get his career back on track and prove he can still win major races next season.
The Lampre-Merida rider won the Giro d’Italia in 2004 and the best young rider’s white jersey at the 2006 Tour de France. He won the Tour of Lombardy in 2004, 2007, and 2008 but his career has faded towards oblivion since then. He won just one race in 2013, a stage at the Settimana Coppi & Bartali in March. He was not selected for the Italian team for the world championships in Tuscany and spent the final part of the season working in a domestique role for younger teammate Diego Ulissi. He finished third in the Japan Cup behind Michael Rogers and Jack Bauer.
Cunego is the last Italian rider to win one of the five monumental Classics and his decline is emblematic of the fall from grace of Italian cycling in recent years.
Cunego will go on trial in Mantova on December 10, accused of doping, as part of the investigation into the pharmacist Guido Nigrelli. Many of Cunego current and former Lampre teammates and staff will also go on trial.
Cunego always avoids answering questions about doping and the trial, while insisting his has nothing to hide. Police evidence, especially phone taps, will reveal what happened at Lampre and the infamous Mantova pharmacy.
Cunego is convinced he still has the motivation to race and train. He is now 32 and in the last year of his contract with Lampre-Merida. He insists his terrible 2013 season was caused by a difficult winter.
“I was ill several times during my winter because the weather was so wet. That meant I struggled to build any continuity and that continued throughout my season. Things went from bad to worse. I’ve realised that it’s very difficult to get your season back on track once things start going wrong,” he told Cyclingnews recently.
“It wasn’t about the way my season was programmed, that I rode the Tour and not the Giro. I did the work, I did the training but it was just a bad year. I’ll be working to make sure it doesn’t happen again in 2014.”
The Giro d’Italia for the Little Prince
Cunego may ride the Giro d’Italia in 2014, ten years after his breakthrough victory that earned him the nick-name of ‘Little Prince’ after the character in the famous book written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
With Michele Scarponi moving to Astana in 2014 and world champion Rui Costa focused on the Tour de France, Cunego could get one last chance to show what he can do at the Giro d’Italia if he can convince new team manager Brett Copeland to give a place in the nine-rider Giro d'Italia team.
“I’d like to ride it, prepare well for it and be competitive,” he told Italian newspaper Tuttosport.
“The most important thing is that I feel good again, be up there fighting for victory, both at the Giro and in the Classics.”
Cunego insisted his career is not over just yet.
“I’m only 32, I can still be around for a while yet. I hope to get back to my best starting from next season. That’s the big goal, my only goal for now,” he said.
“Some people think my time is up but we’ll see. I don’t think so. The road will reveal my destiny.”
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Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and Cycling Weekly, among other publications.