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Cunego - Cyclist of the Year 2004?
 
By Podofdonny
Date: 10/21/2004
Cunego - Cyclist of the Year 2004?
 


A younger Damiano Cunego. Photo by Dave O'Nyons.

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 classified riders:

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 life.

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 Manuela Kofler.

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 Team Saeco.

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 things. "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 even better." 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 report.

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 Trentino.

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 enthusiasm."


Damiano in solitaria at the top of the Bocchetta climb. Courtesy Saeco.

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 report.

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 d’Italia. 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.

Giro d’Italia

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.

Just prior 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.

Directeur sportif 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, you’ll see."

Stage Two interview with Cunego.

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 one-two.

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.

Stage 3 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 mate.


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 better.”

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 Fabio.

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 Karen Lambrecht.

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 report.

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 comfortably. “It’s a great win, almost as nice as winning the Giro d’Italia,” Cunego said.

“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 report.

 
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