A younger Damiano Cunego. Photo by
Cunego - 227 to 1
Since the UCI ranking points system was introduced in 1989, there have been
17 riders who have occupied the number one slot. Damiano Cunego, winner of
the Giro and the Giro di Lombardia, has become the youngest ever rider to
reach this position. In this article we look at Cunego’s incredible season
and plot his course victory by victory to take the number 1 spot.
But first a look at the Giants of the Road. Cunego joins the other Number 1 UCI
15/5/1989: Charlie Mottet (Fra), 26 years old
23/7/1989: Laurent Fignon (Fra), 28
6/6/1990: Gianni Bugno (Ita), 26
16/6/1991: Claudio Chiappucci (Ita), 28
14/6/1992: Miguel Indurain (Esp), 27
12/6/1994: Tony Rominger (Sui), 33
25/9/1995: Laurent Jalabert (Fra), 26
10/10/1996: Alex Zulle (Sui), 28
10/10/1998: Michele Bartoli (Ita), 28
4/6/2000: Francesco Casagrande (Ita), 29
20/8/2000: Jan Ullrich (All), 26
10/6/2001: Davide Rebellin, 29
1/7/2001: Lance Armstrong (USA), 29
30/9/2001: Erik Zabel (All), 31
24/3/2002: Erik Dekker (Hol), 31
23/3/2003: Paolo Bettini (Ita), 28
17/10/2004: Damiano Cunego (Ita), 23
From 227th to Number 1
In October 2003 Cunego was ranked in 227th place; it is interesting to
remember what Cunego had to say about cycling in June 2003…
A lot of people say too much television is bad for you and that was
true in my case. As a boy I spent hours and hours watching the Giro d’Italia
on television and that’s how I became addicted to cycling. And so now just a
few years later I’d never imagined that I’d find myself climbing the
Dolomite mountains along side some of the biggest riders in the sport that I
once watched from the chair in my living room. And yet that’s what happened,
I was 16 when I decided that cycling was not only on television or something
to do after school. It was better late than never in my case because in my
only season as a schoolboy I won 14 races and decided that cycling was my
In my first year as a junior I won eight races and the year after the
same again but with one special victory that would change my life. I was
selected for the World Road Race Championships in Verona my hometown. I knew
every inch of the race circuit and tried to ride as if it was just a local
race. I was calm and focused but then when I saw all my fans on the
Torricelle climb I was overwhelmed. When I won it I became their hero.
Becoming junior world champion on my home roads, in front of my fans and
after just three years of racing was unbelievable and unrepeatable. It was
also a clear sign: my destiny was to become a professional rider.
My two years as an Under 23 rider went pretty well and I won some good
races. At the most important races I always noticed Giuseppe Martinelli
amongst the public. He’d followed my progress ever since I was a junior and
last year he was the one who wanted me for the Saeco team, without worrying
about me being too young. In 2000 he even offered me the chance to turn
professional without ever racing as an Under 23 amateur. I decided against
it because I thought it was too big a risk for someone who had only been
racing for three years and Martinelli respected my decision.
In the Saeco team I found a perfect atmosphere which was always able to
manage the most difficult moments and also keep our feet on the ground when
things went well. Everybody was very professional and they were always
willing to help the young riders in the team. It was the ideal team for a
rider like me to grow up in.
After just a few months I got my first results: the Giro del Medio Brenta
and the Giro d’Oro. They were not big races but they were two important wins
for me. As well as being incredibly satisfying on a personal level, they
also made me feel a part of the Saeco team.
The 2002 Giro d'Oro podium, left to right: Patrick Sinkewitz
- Damiano Cunego - Remmert Wielinga. Photo by
I know I’m considered one of the promises for the future and I’m working
hard to achieve what everybody expects of me but at the same time I’m not
getting over confident or too demoralised when I get a kicking or when I see
another rider my age win important races. My objectives for the future are
the major stage races and I certainly won’t be at my best at just 21. For
now I enjoyed the privilege of racing with great riders like Gilberto Simoni
in key moments of mountain stages. I tried to help him; I watched how he did
things and tried to learn from him. Riding the Giro d’Italia with him was a
great experience: a mix of mental and physical tiredness but also none stop
emotions. However it’s a life I like a lot and I’m very lucky to be a
professional at just 21.
I’ve got two other passions in life as well as cycling: music and books.
I managed to relax after the Giro d’Italia stages and switched off thanks to
a good massage but also by listening to the Doors and the voice of Jim
Morrison and while reading a good book. However I also often carefully look
back over a day’s racing, so that I can learn even more!
The team at the Giro del Trentino. Courtesy
First Victory – Giro del Trentino
However, as the 2004 season started it was clear that Cunego had learnt
a lot in his first year, and he grabbed the headlines in the Giro de Trentino
in April by winning the first stage and taking the race lead. Gilberto
Simoni commented, “I said that Damiano Cunego is a little real champion. He
must to be patient, able to wait, be modest and less pig-headed. But he is
an important rider for the future.” Cunego had attacked with 7 km to go,
had then outsprinted the Slovenian rider Glocer 300 metres from the finish
line. A bold move to take the race leadership, but Cunego was not satisfied
with just the stage win - “I’m very happy, this is a starting point for me,
this performance is a beginning, I hope to wear the leader jersey to the
end of the race.”
The following day was the Queen stage, ending with a
mountain top finish at Roncone.
The golden boy of Italian cycling was in great shape and his superiority on
the uphill finish was clear. As the gradient kicked in he split the front
group of riders with five riders going clear. At two kilometres from the
finish Cunego attacked again and put on an impressive show. Nobody was able
to go with him and then with 1.5km to go, Simoni showed he was riding well
by going clear to seal second place, 35 seconds behind his young teammate.
"Congratulations to Cunego, he’s going to win the Giro del Trentino and
he deserves it. I’m happy because I rode well and I feel good," Simoni said
after the race.
Directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli was all smiles: "Our team for the Giro
is starting to show what they can do. I’m very satisfied," he said. On the
podium Cunego’s baby face was filled with a huge smile. "It’s early to say
I’ve already won the overall classification because there are two more days
of hard racing. Of course I’m incredibly pleased. I have to thank everybody
at Saeco and especially my team mates. If I won and can enjoy this fantastic
moment it's thanks to them."
On April 23rd Cunego did indeed take the overall victory of Giro del
Trentino and the Saeco website reported:
He has already won six races in
just three years as a professional and his latest important win in a
difficult race like the Giro del Trentino is a launch pad for greater
"I’m both excited and moved," Cunego said. "This win doesn’t represent a
starting point of my career but is very motivating and will drive me to do
Cunego’s next objective will be to help Gilberto Simoni win his third maglia
rosa at the Giro d’Italia just as Simoni did for Cunego at the Giro del
Trentino. Cunego will have to work hard during the whole of the three week
Giro and especially in the mountain stages, where the two Saeco stars
promise some spectacular riding .
Fabio's final Giro del Trentino
Cunego wins the Giro dell’Appennino!
Once started, Cunego could not stop winning. On April 25th he won his
fourth race in just six days, taking the Giro dell’Appennino one-day race
after winning two stages and the overall classification at the Giro del
The Giro dell’Appennino is a prestigious race held near Genoa and almost
always goes to a strong climber because of the selective Bocchetta climb not
far from the finish. Cunego joined a long list of former winners including
his Team Saeco captain Gilberto Simoni, who won the race last year. Cunego - still only 22 years old, was first over the top of the Bocchetta
with a lead of 35 seconds showing his incredible moment of form. He was
caught on the descent by seven riders including Simoni and another Saeco
team mate Andrea Tonti. He then made sure he was in the winning break by
going with an attack by Nocentini and then won the sprint beating Figueras,
Nocentini and Laverde.
It was an impressive win by Cunego and he was rightly overjoyed. "It’s a
fantastic moment for me," he said. – I’ve got great form and thanks to the
work of the team everything is coming easily. I know it won’t always be like
that but I’m happy because I’ll start the Giro d’Italia with incredible
Damiano in solitaria at the top of the Bocchetta climb.
By now the Saeco team were beginning to realise they had an
embarrassment of riches for the forthcoming Giro the team web site noted:
A lot is expected from Cunego at the Giro d’Italia and he could perhaps even
be joint team leader for the Giro with Gilberto Simoni who showed yet again
that he is progressing rapidly ready for the Giro. However Cunego is keeping
his feet on the ground.
"Simoni is the Saeco team leader for the Giro d’Italia and there’s no
question about that. My objective is to help Gilberto win the maglia rosa,
learn as much as I can and perhaps gets some results myself. That’s enough
for now," Cunego said wisely.
Fabio's final Giro dell'Appennino
Cunego wins GP Larciano
May 1st and in the GP Larciano in Tuscany, Damiano Cunego continued his
winning streak, taking his fifth win in 12 days. Cunego’s win was
impressive. He won with a powerful sprint, beating 18 other riders, including
world champion Igor Astarloa. "It’s incredible to win a sprint like that,
especially beating world
champion Igor Astarloa, this win will have a special place in my palmares,” Cunego said.
The Saeco website made the following observation on the race and future:
Cunego’s latest success pleased everybody at Team Saeco and the team was
doubly happy after the strong ride by Gilberto Simoni; he is clearly coming
into form just in time to go for his third overall victory at the Giro
Simoni’s solo attack on the last climb at Larciano; he went over the top with
15 seconds lead, shows that he is climbing well. He was caught on the
descent by the chasers but his team mates Bertagnolli and Cunego were also
up there and so they rode to help Cunego in the sprint. It was the right
tactic and even though Astarloa tried to squeeze Cunego against the
barriers, there was no stopping him winning yet again.
After this latest ride, whatever Cunego manages to do at the Giro d’Italia,
there can be no doubt that he is one of the revelations of 2004.
Team Saeco decided the line-up for the 87th edition of the Giro d'Italia
and although they billed Simoni and Cunego as joint team leaders, the Saeco
team worded their Press release carefully:
The objective is to allow
Gilberto Simoni to win his third maglia rosa. To help the now clearly on form
Simoni, the team will include rising star Damiano Cunego.
to the start of the race Team Saeco announced a new contract with Damiano
Cunego for 2005 and 2006 with a justified increase, reflecting the value of
the rider and the results he has already obtained.
Once the Giro got under way, Stage Two from Novi Ligure to
Pontremoli saw the Saeco team with Stangeli, Simoni and Cunego all in
rampant form on the final climb the Passo del Brattello, but it was Cunego
who won the stage and also took over the purple jersey of the points
competition. Cunego was still playing down his chances. "I’m riding well and
I’ll try and win again at Corno alle Scale. However this doesn’t change
anything in the Saeco team," he said.
"We’re all here to help Gilberto Simoni win the Giro. I’m still trying to
understand how I won the stage. I’ve got time on my side and will have the
chance to ride the Giro d’Italia at least another ten times. I can’t be
compared to Simoni because I’m not used to handling all the responsibility,
I haven’t got his experience. For now I’m happy to ride with him and learn
as much as I can. He’s the Team Saeco captain and I’m not saying that to
have an easy time, I’m saying it because it’s true."
The finish line of the Novi Ligure to
Pontremoli stage. Courtesy Team Saeco.
Giuseppe Martinelli also tried to stop any early rumours in the press. "We
know how good our team is and how special our leaders are. Whoever tries to
create rivalry within the team and make us nervous is wasting their time,
Stage Three, which finished near the Saeco Headquarters, saw Cunego
set off the first rocket three and an half kilometres from the finish and it
seemed like he was going to win yet again after yesterday's stage to
Pontremoli. In reality it was all part of a carefully planned race. "It was
up to me to attack first and then we would have decided our tactics on how
the others were riding," Cunego said. While Cunego was up the road, Simoni
realised his rivals were suffering and so attacked hard and nobody could go
with him. He flew past Cunego and powered towards the finish for his first
win of the season. He also showed that he was the big favourite for overall
victory. Cunego was just behind him with the other riders but then won the
sprint to make it a Saeco
So order seemed restored in the Saeco camp. Simoni was in Pink and Cunego second at just 15 seconds. Simoni was cautious. "We've won a big
battle but the war is very long," he said wisely.
interviews with Simoni and Cunego.
Simoni in pink and Cunego in purple, with their teammates on the
Corno alle Scale podium.
Courtesy Team Saeco.
Stage 7 saw Damiano Cunego win his 7th race in less than a month
at the summit finish of Montevergine di Mercogliano, and he also took the
race leader’s maglia rosa for the first time in his career. Cunego now led
the Giro by ten seconds ahead of Simoni. It appeared to be part of a well
prepared plan, and Simoni sportingly accepted losing the pink jersey with a
smile. “Cunego was very strong and I’m happy for him,” he said. “I’ve got
rid of the pressure of wearing the pink jersey and so now I can quietly get
ready for the ‘terrible’ final week of the Giro.”
Cunego crosses the line on Stage 7 in his "Legalize my
Cannondale" prison jersey. Courtesy Team Saeco.
And dons his first maglia rosa at
Montergine di Mercogliano. Courtesy Team Saeco.
The Rest Day was a chance for Saeco to show their
united front -
“I learn something new from Gilberto everyday,” Damiano Cunego said.
“Damiano is giving me a big hand by sharing the responsibilty of the team
leadership,” explains Gilberto Simoni. In spite of the cheerful faces at the
press conference, there was an underlying feeling of growing tension between
the two riders – and statements from the Saeco camp like, Whoever expected a
tense atmosphere at the Team Saeco press conference during the first rest day of
the Giro d’Italia was left very disappointed, seemed to be trying
just a little too hard to present a rosy garden.
The team leaders on the rest day. Courtesy Saeco.
It was Yaroslav Popovych and Serhiy Honchar who profited most from
Stage 13, the individual time trial, which saw Simoni crash heavily
after 14 kilometres and Damiano Cunego lose his Maglia Rosa. "I tried to
give my best but I am not an expert time trialist; this is really the first
big TT I've done. Simoni and I are allies; he's my team captain, so we'll
will ride together in the mountains. Gilberto's stronger in the last week
than I am, but we think the race is still wide open and there are still a
lot of climbs before Milano," said Cunego.
Stage 16 to Falzes saw Cunego retake the leader's jersey with a ride
that will go down in Giro legend. His triumphant gallop started on the Furcia climb, 60km from the finish, and was a spectacular crescendo with
perfect support from the Saeco team. The placing of Mazzoleni and Tonti in
the early break meant they were up the road when Cunego came across from the
bunch and they helped greatly to increase his winning margin. Popovych lost
almost four minutes and
Simoni lost three minutes, and found it hard to hide his own disappointment
but rightly pointed out the success of the team: “It was perfect ride by Damiano and the team was incredible. Now we’re going to ride for Cunego,” he
said. So after just 16 stages Cunego had ridden himself into such a strong
position that proud Gilberto had to swallow hard and support his young team
Damiano at the Giro. Photo by Christine Grein,
Capture the Peloton.
Cunego’s spectacular Giro triumph was sealed on Stage 18, and on
the summit of Bormio 2000 Cunego joined the Italian cycling Gods. Stefano
Garzelli had attacked on the Gavia but Saeco strongmen Mazzoleni,
Bertagnolli and Szmyd pulled him back. Gilberto Simoni attacked on the climb
to the finish at the Bormio 2000 ski station. Simoni was caught three
kilometers from the finish by the front group of chasers that included
Cunego. Once again Cunego’s sprint at the end of a tough day was unbeatable
and now the “pupil” was talking like a “master”- “Gilberto rode well just as
the rest of the Saeco did and so I have to thank them for helping me win the
stage.We wanted the stage win and we got it and Gilberto also moved up to
third so that’s a good result even if it’s logical that he hoped to do even
How deep was the rift between Cunego and Simoni after Bormio?
Considering the emotions, stress and nerves involved, really very little,
though added human interest between Simoni the Champion and heir to the
Moser legend, and the young 22 year old from Verona had caught the public's
imagination. Italian television viewing figures went through the roof with
5,200,000 people watching the decisive stage on Saturday. Simoni naturally
made one last effort but Cunego would lead the celebrations in the centre of
Milan. Damiano Cunego became one of the youngest ever riders to win the
Giro, the youngest being Fausto Coppi in 1940, aged only 20 years old, and he
had captured the imagination of the “tifosi.”
A further unleased Cunego on the podium in Milano. Photo by
Cunego and the Saeco team had good reason to celebrate and the
festivities climaxed in Cunego’s quiet home town of Cerro Veronese which was
turned into a huge party as the town in the hills near Verona officially
celebrated Cunego’s victory at the Giro d’Italia. But by the mid June Cunego
was training again for the second half of his season.
Maglia Rosa Cunego and Gilberto Simoni in Milan. Courtesy Saeco.
Victory Number 11
Damiano Cunego was soon back to winning ways at the Due Giorni
Marchigiana -Trofeo Fred Mengoni on the 4th August, Tuesday. Saeco were
always in charge of the selective race (only 15 riders finished), with both Bertagnolli and Spezialetti in the decisive break with Cunego.
This group was then reduced before Cunego won the sprint thanks to his fast finish,
beating Nardello and Moreni. For the young Italian star it was his 11th win
of the season, excluding criteriums (he had won the Criterium Marco
Pantani 2004 in June). At the end of the race Cunego kept his word and
visited ill children in the Salesi oncology department of Ancona hospital.
Cunego at the Trittico Lombardia in mid August. Photo by
GP Nobili Rubinetterie
Cunego’s build up to the Vuelta Espana was perfect as the Giro winner took
his 12th victory of the season at the
GP Nobili Rubinetterie, winning the
sprint to confirm his huge talent. “I felt great and when there was only ten
of us left at the front I kept the speed high with Bertagnolli and then when
the sprint started I managed to control my rivals with a strong burst," Cunego said.
The Arona race ended in a ten rider sprint after the peloton split ten
kilometers from the finish. Cunego made sure he was there and then after
some excellent work by his Team Saeco team mates, he again used his fast
finish to win.
Vuelta a España
Cunego went to the Vuelta with the main aim of preparing for the World
Championships and possibly only racing the first two weeks whilst looking
for stage wins. However, he hurt his leg in the first few days changed plans
and rode to finish the race. He seemed to get stronger as the race went on,
finishing third on Stage 19 and ending the race comfortably in the top
twenty (16th) and looking forward to his “home” race in the World
Championships in Verona.
Cunego on Stage 19 of the Vuelta. (c) Unipublic.
Before the race Damiano warned, “I’m sure the
Spanish riders will be the riders to watch out for on Sunday. They impressed
me at the Vuelta and even though it’s true they were racing in Spain, they
were very, very strong.” Prophetic words, despite the car door and Bettini's knee, Cunego, having worked well with Basso, found himself in the
winning break of 15 riders, however the Valverde-Freire combination was
unbeatable on the day and Cunego finished 9th.
The World Championships live
Giro di Lombardia
As is fitting for the man from Verona, legend of opera and Shakespearean
Italian Romance, Cunego sealed his season in the swirl of autumn leaves,
with fluttering shadows of Coppi, Binda and Giradengo as he won his
thirteenth victory of the season, the UCI number 1 ranking, and the last
ever World Cup Race.
The Saeco press report could afford to be honest –
“After winning in the
spring I won the Giro in May and that was amazing, winning a World Cup race
is incredible,” Cunego said.
The extraordinary thing about the victory was the courage and determination
of how Cunego won at just 23 years old.
“I made some mistakes and used a lot of energy but it was probably the only
way to make things go my way.”
Indeed when Ivan Basso attacked on the last climb of San Fermo, taking
Boogerd and Evans with him, it seemed like Cunego had missed out. However it
was exactly in that moment that Cunego showed his class. He never gave up
and continued to chase hard before catching the three on the descent. At
that point he was the favourite to win the sprint and even the arrival of
Nardello could not change things. Cunego knew he was the fastest sprinter
and knew he was in great shape after working hard in the Vuelta, and won
“It’s a great win, almost as nice as winning the Giro d’Italia,” Cunego
“Winning a World Cup race is worth twice as much as other races. I’ve also
beaten great rivals, especially Ivan Basso who I’ll go up against in the
future at the Giro and the Tour de France. I think it’s good for cycling and
will excite the tifosi and capture the attention of young people. In the
next few years it’s going to be an exciting time for cycling.”
Cunego, Valverde, Boonen – the future is so bright you have to wear shades.
Cunego in good company with Boogerd and Basso on the Giro di
Lombardia podium. Photo by Christine Krüger, Cyclingimages.
Read the Giro di Lombardia live