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News Feature, April 20, 2008

Cunego successfully steps ahead in Ardennes

Italian conquers Amstel Gold's Cauberg and confident with season objectives

By Gregor Brown in Valkenburg, The Netherlands

The podium with Schleck, Cunego and Valverde
Photo ©: Elmar Krings
(Click for larger image)

Damiano Cunego noted his affection for the Ardennes Classics exactly six months ago, on October 21, 2007. The Lampre rider had just taken his second win in the fall Classic Giro di Lombardia, with two wins in one of cycling's Monuments in the bag, Cunego looked ahead to the Spring Classics to round out his palmarès.

The 26 year-old Italian from Verona took an impressive win in the Dutch Classic Amstel Gold Race. He now heads into the remaining Classics as a new favourite, in particular the one other Monument which suits this diminutive rider: Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Cyclingnews listened in as he explained how he won the race that ended in Maastricht and what it means for his future, which includes riding the Tour de France this summer.

"It was my first experience in this race, but today I won," Cunego stated after arriving to the top of Valkenburg's Cauberg first after out-sprinting Luxembourg's Fränk Schleck and leaving Spain's Alejandro Valverde lagging behind.

Last fall he confirmed to Cyclingnews his springtime intentions, "I would say the Spring Classics are very important to me. I will try at Amstel [Gold], Flèche [Wallonne] and Liège [-Bastogne-Liège]. ... I think that it is possible to have a good run and get a great result, and it is an opportunity to improve my fitness. I know that I can do well in these one day races."

Cunego has little experience in the Ardennes Classics, in fact, this morning in Maastricht was his first time to line-up for Amstel Gold – a 257.4-kilometre race taking in 31 climbs.

"My team-mates did a lot of work," he confessed. Cunego won the Giro d'Italia in 2004 and Italy's one-day Classic Giro di Lombardia two times, but lacked knowledge of the Dutch race. Fortunately his team guided him through the day. "Daniele Righi has done this race five times and [Alessandro] Ballan two or three times, so I was able to rely on them. They would tell me where there were dangerous curves. Also, the director [Fabrizio Bontempi] back in the car knows the race like the back of his hand, and he gave me good directions."

The rider known as 'Il Piccolo Principe' in Italy made the key group of favourites after the Eyserbosweg, near 18 kilometres remaining, and from there he fought to maintain his position in the group that eventually included Valverde and Joaquím Rodríguez (Caisse d'Epargne), Schleck (Team CSC), Kim Kirchen (High Road), Thomas Dekker (Rabobank) and past winner Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner).

"It was a hard finale," continued Cunego. "Everyone was trying attacks – It was hard and at that point I was on my own. It was not easy to manage.

Schleck opened up the sprint
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

"The Cauberg was very hard. I took the position behind Rodriguez of Caisse d'Epargne. I waited for the attack from Schleck or Valverde. If you look at the last kilometre, Schleck went, and he was the first one I had to go with – I went. I must confess, Schleck's attack [at 500 metres to go] was very hard for me. When Schleck went, I got on to his wheel and then I went for my sprint in the last 200 metres. I had grinta and it worked out. I would have had lost had I not been so attentive."

Cunego's attentiveness was what kept him at front early this month in the País Vasco, where he won stage five, and allowed him to win Klasika Primavera one day later. In the Klasika Primavera, he marked Valverde in the finale knowing he was the faster sprinter, and it paid off with a confidence-building win.

"I tried to dose my strength in the best way possible, because it was truly a difficult finish," he summarised of his day in the Netherlands.

With Amstel finished, Cunego will now set his sights on the final two of the three Ardennes Classics, the Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday and Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday. "My first objective was here, even if it is clear that Liège is my top goal because I know [the parcours] the best," continued Cunego, who finished third in the 2006 Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

"I am also here for Amstel and Flèche. It is good to try to see what happens and it worked out here today. ... I know that I will go to bed tonight very content with what I did, and this will help me for Liège."

Cunego compared the races up north with his home race of Giro di Lombardia. "Liège is very technical in the finale, whereas Lombardia is made on the final descents. There is a big difference between the two. For Amstel, it is a very nervous race."

The new ProTour leader.
Photo ©: Elmar Krings
(Click for larger image)

Now that he has both Spring and Fall Classics in his palmarès, Cunego plans to further round out his palmarès when he partakes in the Tour de France this year. The programme will mean that he skips next month's Giro d'Italia to focus on the French Grand Tour, where he won the maillot blanc of best young rider in 2006.

"This year, I will race the Tour, so the first part of the season is for the Classics and the second part is for the Tour." He stated his confidence, "I believe that I am a rider for both events, even if a lot of people have doubts. I think I can confirm that, and I am confirming that."

Cunego picked up his bike that carried him to his win in the Amstel Gold Race and rode back down to the team bus to thank his team-mates for their work. His next days in Belgium will surely be ones filled with confidence, and who knows, maybe today's battle up the Cauberg will also give him the little extra edge for victory in Paris this July.

For more on Damiano Cunego read Cunego ends season with victory in Lombardia or Stepping back into the limelight.

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