Yesterday in Sardinia, Damiano Cunego took his first win in 527 days. While it may only be February, it’s still a noteworthy victory, coming over Peter Sagan, who—thanks in part to the extra-dessert-worthy efforts of his teammates—is confirming some of the form he showed at the top one-week stage races last season.
But a 500-day gap is a dishearteningly long time for a rider with Cunego’s expectations to wait for a win. It’s not that he hasn’t been slugging it out with the elites—he had some notable digs in the 2010 Tour—but for a guy who won a Giro at age 22, “among the best” is widely considered an underwhelming achievement. He’s had to defend his riding far more than any other winner of a Grand Tour and four classics, I can tell you that.
So maybe that’s why there are so many different explanations—at times, conflicting explanations—for his “sub-par” performances. His occasional spats with teammates have been well-documented: first the blow-up with Simoni at the 2004 Giro—tension from which was still palpable during a meeting at Interbike seven months later. I’d always been inclined to pin that tiff on Gibo, given his propensity to whine and the in-race support of Cunego by their Saeco teammates.
But Alessandro Ballan—who won the 2008 World Title with a major assist from a second-placed Cunego—didn’t have great things to say about the Little Prince after jumping ship from Lampre to BMC in 2010. Guiseppe Martinelli, who “discovered” Cunego describes the Italian—somewhat more politically—as “introspective”. The fact that the three-time Lombardy winner also has a big fence and closed-circuit security cameras at his house would certainly back up that appraisal.
Cunego (somewhat unsurprisingly), claims things are the other way around with Ballan, and self-effacingly criticizes his own reduced work ethic for losing the very top-end of his abilities. But I suspect—and Cunego might not deny—that his perceived decline stems from something a bit more substantive. After all, when Cunego was seemingly at the peak of his abilities, much attention was given to his supposedly natural high hematocrit.
As his performances have tailed off, Cunego has made some very interesting comments to the press, some of which seemed to carry the veiled suggestion that there are ways he could be riding better:
“My principle is this: To do what I can in the way that I should. With a conscience. The people who know you, understand you, appreciate you, esteem you, and respect you. There is a finishing order on the day, which this time has penalized me, and there is a finishing order in life, where everyone must protect himself. I am not the only one to do what I can the way I should. Therefore I keep doing it. And already I know there are certain classifications, that must be rewritten, to finished competitions, and this remains painful to me.”
While Cunego hasn’t lived entirely outside the realm of suspicion since downgrading from “unbeatable” to merely “great”, the connections between him and a few unsavory characters are tenuous, and unlike some other suspected riders, who vacillate between loud proclamations and gruff no-comments, he’s remained quietly vocal in his own defense.
I think the example of Danilo DiLuca shows what a rider in Cunego’s mold can do with a little push from clever chemistry. And while Cunego’s work in 2004 might have been more graceful than The Killer’s later efforts, it was carried out in a similarly emphatic fashion. Not that I consider myself a Lemondian (one who believes that doping can be sussed out entirely through performance) but Cunego’s wins since that amazing Giro certainly seem to have leaned more on canny racing and an explosive sprint.
So for all his problems, I think I might just be ok with 500-day gaps between wins. Frankly, I’d like to see more top names collect a small handful of classy, smart, hopefully clean wins—especially after so many with a similarly-sudden appearance names rose to wild, unprecedented success before tumbling down in digrace.
At the very least, the drought between victories has made Cunego a veritable steal in the Podium Cafe Virtual Directeur Sportif Competition that gets underway tomorrow.