Cunego was hoping to ride the Giro d’Italia one final time, and then hang up his bike after the last stage in Rome on May 27. However, his Nippo-Vini Fantini was not awarded a wild card invitation by RCS Sport and so the so-called ‘Little Prince’ of Italian cycling will sign off with a final ride at Amstel Gold Race, and then the Italian national championships.
Now 36, Cunego captured the hearts of the Italian tifosi by winning the 2004 Giro d’Italia when he was just 23 years old. He also won Il Lombardia three times and was the best young rider at the 2006 Tour de France. He was enigmatic but talented. He was rarely successful in the final years of his career but seemed happy to play a minor role in the sport, out of the spotlight and avoiding any scandals.
Despite turning professional in 2002, Cunego is still motivated, recently spending time at a training camp in Sicily, but he feels it is the time to retire.
“After all these years it feels right to end my career. I’d hoped to ride the Giro d’Italia one last time but….” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport before heading to the Netherlands for Sunday’s race.
“I’m going to call it a day because I can feel that the sport has changed. There are a lot of new young riders and new teams. I’ve done my time. I’m also ready to do something else in life. I want to work as a coach. I’ll be working with the Nippo Vini Fantini team until at least 2020 and also helping the Japanese riders prepare for their home Olympics in 2020. I started to study for a sports science degree but it was difficult to race and have enough time for my family. Now I’m ready to change roles and become a coach full-time.
Cunego naturally remembers his 2004 Giro d’Italia victory as the highlight of his long career.
“The best day was when I took back the maglia rosa on the stage to Falzes in 2004,” he confirmed.
“The worst? Some people think it was when I finished second (behind then Lampre teammate Alessandro Ballan) at the world championships in Varese but I still won a silver medal that day. The worst moments were the crashes and the pain, such as in the 2008 Tour de France.”
Cunego beat Frank Schleck, Alejandro Valverde and Davide Rebellin to win the 2008 Amstel Gold Race at the top of the Cauberg climb. This year he will ride for teammate Marco Canola but is hoping to enjoy his last major Classic of his career.
“I want to really thank the organisers for giving me a chance to ride Amstel Gold Race for one last time,” he said.
“I hope to do as well as possible. Canola is on form and a good rider. When I won the finale was more selective. Now with the finish away from the Cauberg, the fight for the final climbs is even more intense. There will probably be 50-80 riders up front fighting for position. I’m a bit if a lightweight but I’m not scared to fight for position. I’ve been through a few battles…”