The Enigma of Damiano Cunego

Feb 24 2011

Damiano CunegoYesterday 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.”

Damiano Cunego Drinks a SodaWhile 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.

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11 Responses to “The Enigma of Damiano Cunego”

  1. Stilo84 24 February 2011 at 1:45 pm #

    Great post. I have also noted cunegos strong comments about the right way to do things, which makes him a favourite of mine. Good to see him do good.

  2. Larry T. 24 February 2011 at 3:57 pm #

    Cunego’s been quoted saying something like “now I can reevaluate my performance in light of….” after various riders ahead of him on final GC were caught doping. While he’s not won a lot since his surprise Giro win, he’s often up there…trying, as in last year’s Giro stage into Montalcino. In some ways he’s mercurial like maybe, Cadel Evans. After SO many methodical, dominating performances by various big stars have been scarred by doping sanctions or allegations, The Little Prince from Verona’s performances seem genuine and when he finally wins it seems to be a victory for clean cycling. I hope I’m not wrong in believing in guys like Evans and Cunego…they’re the guys that make pro cycling worth paying attention to in these days of almost constant scandals.

  3. Big Mikey 24 February 2011 at 4:30 pm #

    I gotta disagree with the other posters here. Winning a grand tour at 22? That’s a rare enough occurence to be highly suspicious. If you remember, nobody could touch him that year. Eerily similar to Rumsas’ TdF run, remember that? Cunego hasn’t even contended for a GT since that race.

    To be fair, he certainly rides now like a clean rider. We can hope he’s seen the light, as he is an entertaining racer, and fun to watch.

  4. Sampo 24 February 2011 at 5:28 pm #

    Thank you once again for a well thought out article.

  5. Dave 24 February 2011 at 6:15 pm #

    How thoroughly sad it is that any rider who wins today is automatically deemed by some to have doped. I wonder if those people look at everything else in their life with similar negativity. I suppose for them if they come home and the wife is in a good mood they must assume she’s having an affair or if their kid gets good marks in school they must assume the teacher is being bribed somehow. The world is full of instances where someone has had a lifetime achievement never to be repeated. That is true of times well before anyone thought to dope up for sports and it is still true now. Too bad the neggers can’t see the beauty of an unlikely performance as anything other than a probable case of doping.

  6. Oliver 24 February 2011 at 7:00 pm #

    In re: PC’s DS contest, Peter Sagan I think is also a pretty good deal. Contador not so much….

  7. Skippy 25 February 2011 at 1:59 am #

    Rest day in Bormio , Lampre team are getting ready to ide so i asked Damiano for permission to join the team . OK off we go Gibo up front and Damiano and Silvo at the back with me tagging along. Throughout the ride there was banter and Silvo made e great interpreter for us three’s convo. Not once during the two hours did Gibo or Damiano speak to each other although Gibo seemed to speak only to the Guy he was alongside .

    On the way back we came across Pavel Tonkov so i excused myself and took off and joined him for about an hour more of easy riding . Luckily for me the area is reasonably flat.

    Last year i had the Op to ride with Damiano and the Guys but this time after a warm up ride we headed up the slope towards Plan Corones which was the next days Time Trial course, Guys were loosening up but i was pushing hard to stay with them, mostly out of the saddle and glad to reach the top !

    Next day was easier for mre as i did the climb at my own tempo but finished the top part of the climb as the racers were struggling up the final pitch with the motorbikes struggling behind esach racer carrying their spares .

    Damiano has talent and so many times last year unluckily missed the win , Confidence is a key factor for all and this week’s win will boost his self belief .

    All “tall poppies” seem to have team issues although the media loves to stoke them to sell their rags !

    Expect Cadel to underperform his team’s expectations this year , and it won’t be lack of effort on his part since the quality of competition is growing stronger.

  8. Eliathah Boda 1 March 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    Does anyone know anything about vuelta wheels? they look like they have some good products but i want someone elses opinion.
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  9. Tom Gakes 2 March 2011 at 8:19 am #

    Let’s not forget about the virus Cunego had the year after his Giro win. After that he never really got back to his old level as a climber, but this could also be because of the gain in muscle mass that makes him more explosive now. So it’s not a strange thing he can’t compete for a GT win anymore but did become a better competitor for the classics. And it seems like he found out about that for himself as well lately. I hope he can win a lot more classics and maybe bcome WC some day.

  10. Osteo 7 July 2011 at 2:54 am #

    Italian riders are all, or have been at some stage..dirty. Who wins a GT at 22 clean?! Does he seem like a nice guy- yes!

  11. cycling clothing 7 September 2011 at 9:38 pm #

    Lampre team are getting ready to ide so i asked Damiano for permission to join the team .

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