Damiano Cunego is back in top form! Or so it seems, and with the Tour of Italy just one and a half months away, that's a very good sign for the 2004 winner - and possibly 2006 GC contender - of the Corsa Rosa. The Lampre leader tasted back the joy of victory, and of wearing the overall leader's mantle of a race, as he captured Thursday's tricky stage three of the Coppi and Bartali International Week, from Scandiano to Fiorano Modenese over 165.6 km.
The wonderboy from Verona was the quickest in the small bunch sprint that decided the stage, and moved up one place to the top of the leaderboard, courtesy of both the bonus seconds awarded to the stage victor and Vincenzo Nibali's unability to defend his fifty-second lead over Damiano, and consequently the jersey he conquered no more than 24 hours earlier. The Liquigas rider fought bravely on a route that suits Cunego's skills better, but didn't succeed; he crossed the line 42" behind Cunego, and - because of the aforementioned bonuses - is now two seconds down on GC.
The stage podium was completed by fellow Italians Luca Mazzanti (Ceramiche Panaria-Navigare) and Massimo Giunti (Naturino-Sapore di Mare), with talented neopro Riccardo Riccó in fourth place, while it's a Belgian (Mario Aerts of Davitamon-Lotto) that fills the other podium spot in the overall standings.
The stage got underway at 11:35 AM CET. Well-known Basque fighter Juanma Garate (Quick Step-Innergetic) got the action started after 17 km., together with the 2004 World U23 Road Race Champion Kanstantsin Sioutsou (Acqua & Sapone), who took over the role of "Belarusian man on the move" from yesterday's breakaway man Aliaksandr Kuchynski (but is it so hard for people in Belarus to choose easier to spell names? lol). But unlike his compatriot, Sioutsou didn't go far at all, and neither Garate did.
Sunny skies graced the Settimana roads at last!
Photo Courtesy Fotoreporter Sirotti. All Rights Reserved.
A more serious attack came a few miles later, courtesy of a 14-man group that contained Nibali himself: the (now former) GC leader broke away with his Finnish teammate Kjell Carlström (Liquigas), Slovenia's Goradz Stangelj (Lampre-Fondital), Italian neo-pro Micula De Matteis (Tenax), his fellow countrymen Sergio Ghisalberti and Alessandro Vanotti (Team Milram), Alessandro Bertolini (Selle Italia-Serramenti Diquigiovanni) and no less than His Gold-helmeted Majestey Paolo Bettini (Quick Step-Innergetic) displaying some excellent legs with the Classic of the North withing striking distance. Besides Carlström, the foreign contingent in the breakaway featured Hubert Schwab (Swi - Quick Step-Innergetic), Aussie Scott Davis (T-Mobile Team), Spain's José Enrique Gutièrrez Cataluña (Phonak Hearing Systems) and Amets Txurruka Ansola (Barloworld), Colombian Luis Felipe Laverde (Panaria-Navigare) and Mexico's Juan Pablo Magallanes (Androni Giocattoli-3C Casalinghi). They quickly put 15 seconds into the field, but the front group was cut down to twelve men as Magallanes attacked again and only Stangelj, Vanotti, Schwab, Davis, Pinotti, Laverde, Bertolini, De Matteis, Txurruka followed the move, while Bettini, Nibali, Carlström and Ghisalberti were replaced by Italian late attackers Rinaldo Nocentini (Acqua & Sapone) and Naturino's Giunti.
The Dirty Dozen were not working well together that much, but nonetheless, after turning a 10-man bunch as Laverde and Giunti got dropped, they increased their lead over the Liquigas-led chase group to 01'30" by the km. 73 check. Two kilometres later Nocentini went on a solo break, gaining a minute in the space of five kilometres. His lead over the nine former fellow frontrunners, now playing the part of closest chasers, went up to 01'53" on the Serramazzoni slopes, with the main bunch more than three and a half minutes adrift, and to 02'25" and 04'28" respectively at Varana (71 km. to go). The first chasing group was down to seven as the pace was too high for Scott Davis and Amets Txurruka to follow, but after achieving 02'32"and 05'20" (by km. 100), the gaps finally kept going the other way around: 01'20" and 03'28" with 50 km remaining, 54" and 03'05" at km. 123, and ... just 02'47" on the main field with 40k to go as Stangelj, Magallanes, Bertolini, Schwab, Pinotti, De Matteis and Vanotti had finally regained the leader.
And Damiano Cunego graced his fans opening his 2006 account.
Photo Courtesy Fotoreporter Sirotti. All Rights Reserved.
Things stayed the same over the next dozen kilometres, but the Fogliano ascent made the gap, with Nocentini paying for his previous efforts and just five guys remaining up front: Gorazd Stangelj (first across the top) and Tenax's young climber Micula De Matteis (another name to watch out for in seasons to come), plus Pinotti, Bertolini and Magallanes. The ascent broke the main bunch into (three) pieces too, with Nibali and especially Simoni and Bettini reportedly struggling and losing time. But not Cunego, whose 40-strong group chased down Schwab, Nocentini and Vanotti on the way to third passage over the line at Fiorano Modenese. Stangelj, Magallanes, Bertolini, Pinotti and De Matteis maintained an advantage of over a minute as they hit the Fiorano climb again, but it made the damage again, and the remainder of the "breakaway of the day" was pulled back by the Cunego bunch by km. 156, with the Slovene and The Engineer (aka Marco Pinotti) as the last ones to give up the fight.
With under ten kilometres left, we had a leading group of about 40-45 guys, containing Damiano but not "The Shark of the Strait", as Nibali was inside a second bunch some thirty seconds back. The Lampres up front were well aware of that, and gave a massive pull so that the margin went up to 33" with 2k to go and became even more consistent over the last 2,000 metres: then Cunego and his fast legs (seemingly back to their 2004 form) finished off the job. And took their first win of the season and the jersey.
All other wannabe Maglia Rosa winners are warned.
Stage 3 (Scandiano to Fiorano Modenese, 165.6 km): Top 10 Places
1. Damiano Cunego (Ita - Lampre-Fondital) - 04h19'50" (38.239 kph)
2. Luca Mazzanti (Ita - Ceramiche Panaria-Navigare) - s.t.
3. Massimo Giunti (Ita - Naturino-Sapore di Mare) - s.t.
4. Riccardo Riccò (Ita - Saunier Duval-Prodir) - s.t.
5. Alessandro Bertolini (Ita - Selle Italia-Serramenti Diquigiovanni) - s.t.
6. Mario Aerts (Bel - Davitamon-Lotto) - s.t.
7. Tadej Valjavec (Slo - Lampre-Fondital) - s.t.
8. Raffaele Illiano (Ita - Selle Italia-Serramenti Diquigiovanni) - s.t.
9. Michael Rogers (Aus - T-Mobile Team) - s.t.
10. Andrea Tonti (Ita - Acqua & Sapone) - s.t.
Settimana Int. Coppi Bartali - Gc after Stage 3: Top 5 Places
1. Damiano Cunego (Ita - Lampre-Fondital)
2. Vicenzo Nibali (Ita - Liquigas) - at 02"
3. Mario Aerts (Bel - Davitamon Lotto) - at 11"
4. Sergio Ghisalberti (Ita - Team Milram) - at 14"
5. Luca Mazzanti (Ita - Ceramica Panaria-Navigare) - at 17"
More to follow.
Settimana Coppi & Bartali - Stage 1A
Settimana Coppi & Bartali - Stage 1B
Settimana Coppi & Bartali - Stage 2