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News feature, November 2, 2006
Damiano Cunego wind tunnel testing with John Cobb
Last Saturday, October 28, Damiano Cunego traveled to Texas for an aerodynamic position study with John Cobb. The occasion was historic and possibly career changing; during the day, Gianmarco Cilli had a chance to sit down with Cunego to discuss 2006 and his upcoming goals.
Damiano Cunego first came to the attention of the cycling world in 2004 when he upstaged his Saeco team leader Gilberto Simoni and won the Giro d'Italia. He was only 22 years-old. He then soared to the top of the UCI rankings to finish the 2004 season at number one. He was the youngest rider ever to do so. His second real attempt at a Grand Tour (a virus ruined his 2005 season) was the 2006 Giro, in which the Lampre-Fondital rider was easily defeated by Ivan Basso. What became clear was that though Cunego has exceptional climbing ability and recovery powers, he lacks the time trial skills to compete in the modern day Giro d'Italia, which has become less the climber's race and more like the Tour de France. Cunego was still only 24 years-old during this year's Giro, and it must be noted that he still has some maturation as a rider ahead of him.
A similar story unfolded at the 2006 Tour de France; Cunego lost large amounts of time to the top GC contenders in the time trial stages. More encouraging though, was his performance in the final TT, in which he defeated specialist Markus Fothen of Gerolsteiner to secure his win the young rider's competition.
Encouraged by this victory, Cunego announced his goal of winning the 2008 Tour de France. Eager to help young Cunego achieve this goal is Velo Imports, the USA importer of Wilier Triestina frames, the same ones that are used by Lampre-Fondital. Though the USA connections, Cunego was put in touch with aerodynamics guru John Cobb for wind tunnel testing near Houston, in College Station, Texas.
Cobb, after studying photographs of Cunego in the Tour de France time trials, knew he could make changes to his position that would save him significant time. Wilier made the case to Giuseppe Martinelli, Cunego's personal manager, mentor, and Lampre-Fondital Director Sportif, who was convinced and made plans for a trip to Texas.
The goal of the visit is to put Cunego in the most aerodynamic position possible, while still having an optimal power output. John Cobb has worked with cycling aerodynamics since 1984. His first famous client was Greg LeMond in 1989, followed later by Lance Armstrong.
Cunego arrived for testing with Giuseppe Martinelli, Lampre-Fondital mechanic Enrico Pengo, and Andrea and Michele Gastaldello of Wilier Triestina. They came equipped with four bicycles; Cunego's 2006 Wilier Crono Carbon TT rig, his new 2007 Wilier Cento Crono carbon TT bike, an experimental aluminium prototype built for front and rear 650 wheels, and one road bike so that John Cobb can compare road to TT positions.
John Cobb's wind tunnel of choice is Texas A&M's Oran W. Nicks Low Speed Wind Tunnel in College Station, Texas. Due to its constant use in automotive and aerospace testing, the place looks a little worse for wear. Cobb explains that it is a "working tunnel," but it is as accurate as any other.
The wind tunnel makes a deafening roar when in use. In fact, Cunego and everyone else present are required to wear earplugs during the test runs. The wind in the tunnel is 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7.2°C), which makes Cunego shiver on his bike. After each run, he quickly exits the tunnel and puts on a jacket. The staff, who has made an exception to work on this Saturday, operates the tunnel and all of the computers that record the data from the control room. There are several television monitors that film Cunego from different angles, and the footage is recorded to DVD.
The wind tunnel produces a 30 mph (48 kph) wind, while a revolving platform underneath the bike shifts to incrementally change the wind direction from a straight-on headwind up to a 20 degree crosswind. The drag numbers for each increment are displayed real-time on a monitor in the control room. Everyone crowds around eagerly to see the results as they come in. Even Cunego makes a beeline from the tunnel to the control room to see for himself after each run.
The first test begins with Cobb putting Cunego on his 2006 time trial bike, set up exactly as he raced it, using all of his 2006 equipment, and riding in the position he has used thus far. The drag results from this test will be the reference point from which he will try to improve Cunego's aerodynamic position.
From there, Cobb makes a series of slight changes, testing the drag of each setup. It is a meticulous and tightly controlled process. Each change is detailed on a spreadsheet, which is on display on a large screen in the control room: lower handlebars 1cm, shorten stem 2cm, lift bar 0.5 cm, etc.
They then switch Cunego over to the road bike on a trainer outside the wind tunnel so that Cobb can study his position and the way he pedals. Cobb uses an oximeter on Cunego's finger that measures oxygen attachment in his hemoglobin. It is an easy way to see if the rider is breathing properly on the bike.
Back in the tunnel, Cobb moves on to Cunego's new bike, which is a new Wilier TT frame called the Cento Crono. It is a monocoque frame that comes in three sizes, but Cunego's is made from his very own custom mold - It is good to be Il Piccolo Principe. Cobb begins with the best position he has found so far on the 2006 bike.
It was unanimously agreed upon that he was too stretched out on his old frame, so his new frame has been made with a top tube that is 2cm shorter. More changes are made in the position, one at a time: drop stem position, bring in TT bar extensions to 6cm, widen extensions to 10cm, lower bars 3cm, extensions to 13cm, back to original bend extensions, elbow pads forward 2cm, extend stem 2cm, lower bars 1/2cm, etc. The final result is a position that is comfortable enough for Cunego to generate as much power as possible and aerodynamic enough for John Cobb to feel satisfied that he has done his job.
When I asked about his thoughts on the session, Cunego replied, "It was very useful for solving many doubts and uncertainties. We now know the best position after trying all the possibilities, and I can train in that position with confidence."
Did it give you more confidence in your ability to do well in a time trial? "I feel better about having done it because I now I know I have the best possible position and that I have the best equipment, and now all I have to do is put it into practice," confidently added Cunego, who was married only four days before the test.
"I think it went pretty good," interjected a confident Cobb. "Damiano already had a pretty good position. His main problem was comfort. His complaint historically was that time trials were invented by the devil because they're not comfortable. So I think we made some headway on that. And we helped with comfort on his road bike, which will translate to greater comfort on his time trial bike.
"On a 56K time trial, because of his positioning and an improvement in breathing, I think he'll be a little over two minutes faster," responded the TT positioning guru when asked how much time could be saved by Cunego in a Tour de France TT.
"The biggest challenge was working within the constraints of a new frame design that they wanted to be sure and use next year," continued Cobb. "So we want to optimize that frame shape. The new frame design is a good improvement over the last one. And you want to be sure you keep him UCI legal for the races.
"Lance is a lot bigger, so the power levels are a lot different," said Cobb when comparing IL Piccolo Principe to Big Tex, Armstrong. "For a smaller rider, you can take more advantage of the aerodynamics. By changing his position, we were able to improve his breathing pretty dramatically. So his power to generate more watts will come up pretty significantly with just a little training. So in that case you're building more for the future, where Lance already had a lot of power and you're just trying to optimize his ability to apply it to the pedals."
Will Cunego now focus to on the time trial to try to become a TT specialist or will he stay focused on being a climber? "I will do something in between," retorted the rider from Verona. "I don't think I'll ever be as good as Basso or Landis, but I have room for improvement. Of course I have to keep practicing what I do best, which is climbing. I don't think I can I win the Giro in the time trial, but I know I can lose the Giro in a time trial."
Cunego clearly states his home tour as his objective for 2007 As for his build up to the Giro, he is thinking about the Vuelta a Murcia, the Giro del Trentino and the Tour de Romandie. He will then evaluate which other races to do before the Giro. Also in the plans is the Liège-Bastogne-Liège, his favourite of the Ardennes Classics and one that he has almost won.
There will not be a Giro-Tour repeat, like in 2006. "To ride the Giro to win and the Tour in the same year, for me seems too hard," Cunego summarized. "I prefer to wait another year, and make the  Tour my only objective. ... I will plan my season to peak for the Tour, the way those who come to win the Tour do."
The 2006 Tour was the highlight of Cunego's season; "Particularly the last week which was pretty exciting," said Cunego of his first time in France's big race. The white jersey was not his objective before the race began, "but it became one later on the roads of the Tour."
On the scandals of 2006, Cunego commented, "It's a delicate thing to discuss. Clearly, I am sorry for those involved, but the best thing to do is to wait and see how it develops." Is he in favour of DNA testing? "I don't want to intervene in whatever they [the governing bodies] think is the best thing to do."
Might we see Cunego back in the USA for racing? "I would like to do the Tour of California, but it's too early to be a preparation for the Giro."
Finally, having just gotten married a few days prior and gone straight to Texas to work on the bike instead of on a honeymoon. "Oh yes. Very," finished Cunego when I asked if his wife was a very understanding woman. The newlyweds, with their daughter, will soon be honeymooning in Cancun before Damiano returns to Italy to put into practice his new TT position.
For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here
Images by Mike Gladu / Infinite HangTime Photography
Images by Jonathan Devich/epicimages.us
Images by Wilier Triestina