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Cunego caps season with Classic

101st Giro di Lombardia - ProT

Italy, October 20, 2007

ProTour standings

Il Veronese tops Riccò in a two-up sprint in the "Race of the falling leaves"

Damiano Cunego has returned to win in the Giro di Lombardia three years after his first. The 26 year-old rider from Verona broke free with Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Prodir) over the top of San Fermo, and then bettered his Italian compatriot in a two-man sprint along the lake in Como to win one of cycling's five Monuments. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) led the chase only seconds behind the winning duo, finishing ahead of Andy Schleck (Team CSC) and Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner).

"I want to thank my team, my sponsors and those who said that Cunego can't win any more," an exhausted Cunego said at the finish."To win this Lombardia you had to have been the strongest, especially on the penultimate climb," remarked 24 year-old Riccò. "I thought it was going to be a great race, with the attacks of Schleck. Unfortunately, at the end, Cunego was just a mark above me."

It has been three years since the magical season that put 'Il Piccolo Principe' in the spotlight - the year he won the Giro d'Italia with four stages along the way. He finished the year at the top of the UCI rankings thanks to his eight other wins, which included clinching the 2004 Lombardia over Michael Boogerd and Ivan Basso.

"I started my sprint in a very agile gear," Cunego recalled. "After that many kilometres it is always hard to sprint. I shifted to a faster gear as we neared the line."

He was impressed with Riccò. "His attacks on the San Fermo were really strong. We held six to eight seconds on the descent, looking back you could always see the chase. I managed the situation the best I could - I had to give it everything because he is very strong, also in the sprint."

However, today the little prince seemed to have the magic back in his stride. Thanks to the confidence gained from his win in the GP Beghelli he kept cool over the Madonna del Ghisallo (44.3 kilometres to go) while Team CSC mounted the chase of the early escape. The Danish team had Karsten Kroon, Alexandr Kolobnev and Andy Schleck ready to set up Fränk Schleck.

Kroon led the chase as the race started the Civiglio (15.7 kilometres to go). Russian Kolobnev followed his team-mate's actions with an attack that prepared the move of Luxemburger Fränk Schleck. Riccò and Cunego marked the recent winner of the Giro dell'Emilia with Thomas Dekker (Rabobank) and Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) coming to terms on the 2.5-kilometre climb. 27 year-old Schleck hit the throttle again when he saw the Dutch and Aussie duo clawing back, successfully ditching the former.

Cunego gapped his companions on the descent of the narrow streets leading to the silk-producing town of Como. Riccò and Schleck worked well to keep the firing rider in sight while Evans struggled to control his machine, having his rear wheel slid-out on a couple of tight turns. The four were caught as the race neared Como for the start of the day's final climb, the 2.85-kilometre San Fermo della Battaglia.

Sánchez put on a splendid display of descending skills through the Italian villages to bridge with Vladimir Gusev (Discovery Channel). As the Spanish and Russian duo caught on so did Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Kolobnev, Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Luca Mazzanti (Ceramica Panaria-Navigare). On the last bit of flat heading towards the shores of Lago di Como and the punch of San Fermo, Schleck hooked wheels with Gusev in a moment of inattention. He was sent sprawling over the pavement as the race rode away from him.

"It was too bad," said his brother Andy after the race. Fränk gave Andy a hug, while looking down at his right elbow, disappointed. "I was very close," said Fränk. "We were going well; I felt good, but oh well."

Riccò and Cunego had the same idea on the San Fermo: turn off the lights of their competitors. The duo attacked simultaneously on separate sides of the road. Evans, showing brilliant form in his ProTour leader's top, led the re-grouping. Dekker and Rebellin also came to terms, but the Italian duo was not prepared to have company by the 397-metre summit.

The power from the young and nimble legs of Riccò and Cunego was too much for their rivals. Producing magical Lombardia memories, they rode clear of a fan-lined road to take the right-hander at the top with ten seconds. It was going to be touch and go for the final five kilometres, an elevation drop of 195 metres.

Harmony was easily achieved from the two who had both learned their trade under the guidance of Gilberto Simoni - Riccò is a current team-mate while Cunego road with the two-time Giro champion before they had their falling-out. Riccò led under the red triangle of the final kilometre with six seconds on the chase. He continued to lead through the final left-hander at 600 metres to go - it would be the last time he would see the front.

As the chase seemed to be closing on the final straight of Viale Rosselli, Cunego mounted his charge at 75 metres. He easily came around Riccò and had the race won when his younger rival sat up at 25 metres remaining.

At 10 seconds back, Evans held off Mazzanti and Dekker to take sixth. The points scored will put him as the out-right ProTour jersey winner. The 30 year-old was at a 15-point deficit to Danilo Di Luca who was not allowed to start the race due to to his suspension by the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI).

While Di Luca is appealing his disqualification from the competition by the UCI, Evans' sixth place ensured that even if the Italian is later reinstated into the ProTour rankings by CAS, he still finishes five points clear of Di Luca in the standings."

How it unfolded

The race started this morning at 10:40 in Varese, city of the 2008 Worlds, after one minute of silence in memory of the deceased Italian champion Vito Taccone. It was a fast start by the 179 riders, and Ivan Degasperi (Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Selle Italia) was the first to go on the offensive, attacking 25 kilometres into the day's race. His advantage was small, and was whipped out before the first hour, done at 45.7 kilometres an hour.

At kilometre 12 there was a crash that involved Sylvester Szmyd (Lampre-Fondital), Javier Mejías (Saunier Duval-Prodir), Paolo Bailetti (Team LPR) and Daniele Contrini (Tinkoff Credit Systems). The fast pace of the race made it difficult for the riders to rejoin. Cyclingnews spotted riders abandoning only after the first 25 kilometres, when the race paced through Como.

Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner), Matteo Tosatto (Quick.Step - Innergetic), Morris Possoni (Lampre-Fondital), Alberto Losada (Caisse d'Epargne) and Niklas Axelsson (Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Selle Italia) got a small margin after a fast first hour of racing.

After two hours the group had reformed to seven, taking a grand 10'50". Kohl, Losada, Tosatto and Possoni were joined by Alan Pérez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Jesús Del Nero (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and Pablo Lastras (Caisse d'Epargne). The group counted four Spaniards, two from Caisse d'Epargne.

Halfway through the course, at kilometre 121, the group had an advantage of 7'25". But under the pressure of the peloton, the gap was reduced to about three minutes as the race hit the Madonna di Ghisallo climb, which saw the bunch as well as the front group disintegrate.

The breakaway was reduced to four riders: Matteo Tosatto (Quick.Step-Innergetic), Morris Possoni (Lampre), Alan Perez Lezaun (Euskaltel) and Alberto Losada (Caisse d'Epargne) remained in front. They were chased at three minutes by a group of 18 riders including most favourites (World Champion Paolo Bettini, the Schleck brothers).

Meanwhile Tosatto left his breakaway companions behind and took off on an impressive solo ride. Even on the descent of the Ghisallo, his three chasers couldn't rejoin him. The second chase group of 18 riders was 1'40" behind Tosatto.

Vladimir Gusev (Discovery) and Chris Horner (Davitamon) tried to break out of the chase group, but didn't succeed as three CSC riders worked at the front to keep the pace as high as possible, and then Karsten Kroon attacked as the remainder of the front group was caught.

Kroon quickly drove up to the dangling Tosatto on the Civiglio climb with 15 kilometres to go, dragging the favourites' group behind him. Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Fränk Schleck (CSC), Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) were the strongest at this point and led the pack up the climb, but Bettini could not follow anymore.

In the descent, Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Vladimir Gusev (Discovery) managed to come back to the front. But once the riders got down to Como, Fränk Schleck crashed and saw his chances of victory destroyed as the others hit the ultimate climb, the San Fermo with six kilometres to go.

A chase group including Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), Thomas Dekker (Rabobank) and Alexandr Kolobnev (CSC) reached the front group at the foot of the climb. Cunego and Riccò were the most active, attacking and countering over and over, until they were alone in front. The two Italians went over the top together and collaborated well in the descent and during the flat final kilometres into Como.

The chasers could not catch them again even though in the final straight, Riccò and Cunego were just within reach. The Saunier Duval rider was leading out as Cunego launched the sprint with 100 metres to go and came around him easily to take his first Giro di Lombardia and save his 2007 season.

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