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An interview with Damiano Cunego, December 5, 2007

Damiano Cunego: Stepping back into the limelight

Damiano Cunego had a solid year but it was not until the Giro di Lombardia in mid-October that many considered 2007 a success for the former Giro d'Italia Champion. The 26 year-old Italian doubled up in the 'race of the falling leaves' to give merit to his season and supply the needed confidence for the coming 2008 year. Cyclingnews' Gregor Brown spoke with Cunego as the season ended.

Damiano Cunego

Cunego, the 2004 Giro winner
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Cunego keeps tuned into his mp3 player when he is traveling. "The music I like is always the same for me."

The Doors? "Yeah. Also Italian Music." Vasco? "Yes, but above all The Doors."

His 2005 year was blighted by mononucleosis, and even though some have suggested that the virus can stay in a body's system Cunego believes he is cleared.

"I think that now it has completely passed. What I did have has passed, I think after two years it no longer exists. Also, I try not to think of this anymore, just to think about doing my job, basta.".

When you've won the Giro d'Italia before your 23rd birthday, each subsequent season can be a struggle to live up to expectations created by that success. Damiano Cunego's 2004 Giro win was nothing short of spectacular, but since then he's had to be content with wins outside the Grand Tours and his Best Young Rider jersey in the 2006 Tour after struggling with mononucleosis in 2005.

This year, things began to look up for the young rider from Verona. Cunego took seventh in the Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a position that backed up his two stage wins in the Giro del Trentino. However, it was not until the Deutschland Tour when he took first-ever win in a ProTour race with the stage to Sonthofen. A break and the subsequent build up in the Vuelta a España worked perfectly for his season finale in the World Championships and the Giro di Lombardia.

"I had the good fortune to win two editions of Lombardia and now I would like Liège"

-Damiano Cunego describes some ambitions for 2008

However, Cunego's autumn was almost destroyed with a crash in the opening stage of the Spanish Grand Tour. Cunego went down in the same crash that took out American Tom Danielson in stage one, but was able to push on and show enough form to gain a spot on Italy's squadra azzurra for the Worlds team. Consistent riding and a near-stage win on stage 15 to Granada reassured National Selector Franco Ballerini that Cunego could be a strong team member.

A successful finale

Cunego takes his second Giro di Lombardia
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"I guess you could say I was fortunate to crash on the first day of the Vuelta," he said when we spoke two days before the Worlds, September 28. "I took antibiotics, and went on, having massages for my legs. My leg was really stitched up. This went on for 10 days, it was hard to judge my condition, and I think I lost a little bit. After awhile I felt a little better. I had to find a little of the condition that I had beforehand."

He noted the painful details, "I had 13 stitches – five in the knee, five on the hip and three on the elbow. It was a bit of bad luck for me at the start of the Vuelta, but this happens.

"I would say the legs are going good. I want to complete this World Championships, and then after we will see."

His legs were more than "good" they were smoking with form. He dedicated himself to the cause of defending champion Paolo Bettini and co-captain Filippo Pozzato in Stuttgart. By making the big first move with fellow Italians Alessandro Ballan and Alessandro Bertolini, Cunego helped put the other nations on the defensive, which played perfectly into the team's plan.

Cunego even had enough gas to continue pulling once the move was back in the fold to help Bettini to victory. "I was happy with how it went," he noted to us when we spoke during the trip back to Italy. The race also polished off his excellent form ahead of the Giro di Lombardia, where he waged an epic battle in the finale with Saunier Duval's Riccardo Riccò on the way into Como, besting his younger companion in the final sprint to take a repeat of his 2004 win.

"My legs were always there throughout the season, and this time it was a success," said Cunego after winning Lombardia, attributing his win to his efforts at the World Championships. "I think that this is a fruit of my good work at Stuttgart."

Time off

A stage in the Tour of Germany
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After a bis ('double') Lombardia and a team win in the World Championships, Il Veronese is looking towards the 2008 season. He will first spend some time off the bike and with his family.

"My winter pause will be at least one month, after Lombardia until the end of November 20, more or less. For sure, I will have two weeks without doing anything. After that period, I will start in the gym and jog in the mountains. Then I will gradually start again on the bicycle – it is important that I take a sufficient break to recuperate."

The Cunego family will stay closer to home this year for its vacation. "Last year, we went to Mexico but this year we are looking at places that are closer. We are going to Egypt for vacation. We wanted to go somewhere closer to home, versus Mexico. You know with a baby it is harder to travel the long distances. I think a nice week at the beach will be nice.

"My girl is more than two years old. She keeps growing, and has started to talk." Little Ludovica Cunego does not like to see dad leave but knows she will be able to follow his moves on television. "She knows when I am heading away to the races," Cunego continued. "When I am racing she watches the television. ... She is a good girl, and for her age she talks pretty well."

A spectacular 2008

Cunego held onto the young rider's lead in 2006
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Cunego, who will remain with the Lampre-Fondital team through 2008, is happy with squad of riders he has around him, and feels it will serve for further success in 2008. "The riders already in my group are pretty good for the Grand Tours," he said modestly. "Definitely, if you could find an extra rider it would always be better, but it a little difficult to find good riders due to existing contracts, et cetera."

Despite rumours that Danilo Di Luca would transfer to Lampre after winning the 2007 Giro, the squad never did pick up any big names to strengthen the team's Grand Tour squad.

With a 2008 Tour de France route seemingly tailor made for the rider that won the maillot blanc of best young rider competition in 2006, it's time trial deficient parcours promotes the abilities of climbers like Cunego. "The Tour's course seems to me to be very beautiful, with less kilometres in the crono and interesting climbs," he said following the presentation in Paris.

After the Giro d'Italia route was revealed, Cunego's 2008 season began to take shape, favouring the Tour de France over the Giro, which had more time trial kilometres. "It will certainly be a very difficult Giro next year, with more time trials and plenty of climbing," Cunego said.

He will start his season in Italy and Spain, making a stop in the Ardennes on the way to the Grand Tours. "I would say the Spring Classics are always very important to me. I will try at Amstel [Gold], Flèche [Wallonne] and Liège [-Bastogne-Liège] – I have never done all three together but I think that it is possible to have a good run and make a great result, and it is am opportunity to elevate my condition. I know that these one day races I can do well in." He later added, "I had the good fortune to win two editions of Lombardia and now I would like Liège.

"I am also thinking about the Worlds in Varese. They say that I could do well, and that the course is tough. The Worlds in the following two years will be more difficult, and I hope to have my chances. ... The parcours [of Varese] is adapted to a climber like myself, Di Luca and [Davide] Rebellin. This year I did well in the national team – an excellent group. In 2008 I would like to start as a captain."

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