Damiano Cunego: For the love of falling leaves

“You have to be born for this race.” Three-time Il Lombardia champion, Damiano Cunego, on what he remembers of his victories and what it takes to win

This article was first published in Rouleur magazine in 2019

Damiano Cunego was one of the most successful Italian cyclists of his generation. Across a 17-year career, Cunego won 47 races, including the Giro d’Italia in 2004. He was also the champion of Il Lombardia three times. Only Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali won the race on more occasions. Rouleur caught up with Cunego in 2019 for a chat ahead of that year’s edition of Il Lombardia, when he was just a year into retirement.

Rouleur: I was just watching all three of your victories in the Tour of Lombardy and was very conscious of how different they all were. You won alone and from a bunch, a long way out and with a late attack. Which for you was the most memorable?

Damiano Cunego: What can we say about the three Giri di Lombardia? A lot of time has passed. The first victory, in 2004, wasn’t a surprise. The second time I was able to beat a strong guy, Riccardo Riccò.

The third time I won this race alone. It was a kind of… not revenge but re-taking an opportunity for me, because one week/ten days before I had lost the World Championship. If you remember I finished second [to Italian team-mate Alessandro Ballan]. That was a big victory for the Italian team but if you think for me, if you arrive second in the World Championship, it burned a lot.

So Giro di Lombardia [three weeks later] was my second chance, my second opportunity. It meant I am in the group of riders who had won three times. Fausto Coppi won Tour of Lombardy how many times? Five. Binda won four, and three? Cunego. 


Cunego's first win in Lombardy came while riding for the Saeco team in 2004, the same year he won the Giro d'Italia

You’re very proud to be in that group?

Why not? Yes.

Why were you so good at that particular race?

There are many, many secrets to win a race like Tour di Lombardy, or Amstel Gold Race. Firstly you have to be strong and suitable for this kind of race. You know what I mean? When a cyclist is strong in the Giro d’Italia because they can recover, you can do well in a race like the Tour of Lombardy. It’s a race of more than than 200 kilometres. Good skills for Classics. Probably you have to be born suitable for this race.

To prepare for that race I began two months before, only focused on Giro di Lombardia. One time a week I was able to do training very similar to Giro di Lombardia. Alone, maybe with my trainer with me, he was maybe with a motorbike. I would ride in his slipstream, and when I was time to do the climbs, full gas, focused on Giro di Lombardia. That is the secret to being successful. You have to prepare very, very well for this race.

Yes. Usually I had two important goals. One first goal was in the spring – usually the Giro d’Italia. And the second goal, the second part of the season, many times was the Giro di Lombardia. In all the races between these two races, there were competitions I wanted to win. You are obliged because you are in a WorldTour team, to participate in races.

Does that mean you eased off a bit in the middle months of the season? Did you race and train at a lower intensity through summer?

Yes, usually after the Giro d’Italia. You do the first part of the season with a big intensity. Before the Giro d’Italia usually we did 25 competitions. After the Giro d’Italia you have a period when you can recover. Usually I was able to do one week’s vacation. Physiologically and it’s right for cyclists.

In the month of July and August you work again to regain the condition for the other races. Usually in the last part of July many cyclists go in the high mountains, like Livigno, which is one of the best ways to stay far from the hot summer, and acclimatise yourself in altitude. It’s better to improve your performance for the second part of the season. Usually to prepare for the Tour of Lombardy we would do the Vuelta a España.

Damiano Cunego Il Lombardia 2007Cunego beat Riccardo Riccò in a two-up sprint in 2007

I always enjoy this week of racing. Which of the climbs in Lombardia is your favourite?

If we talk about the Tours of Lombardia I won, I remember with big pleasure the last two climbs: Civiglio and San Fermo [della Battaglia]. Because usually these two climbs I was able to do the difference. Another important climb, before these two, is [Madonna del] Ghisallo.

Years later, and I mean these last five years, the organisers introduced the Muro di Sormano. I always hated that climb. I never had pleasure to do that because, probably, this climb I arrived at when I was in the last years of my career, so my performance started being a little bit lower than the best riders. Usually when I rode in this climb I was in difficulty because I wasn’t able to take this climb in the first positions of the group.

You have to fight to take the leadership of the climb. Unlike in teams like Bahrain, Astana, Trek, at Nippo I was alone. When you start a climb like this in 30th, 40th position, and then you have to recover… by that time riders like Vincenzo Nibali are gone. It’s impossible to close the gap. On that climb my race finishes and I have to ride with a little group to the end.

It’s not in my nature but in the last years when I heard the name Sormano… Oh my god! I was already down. I feel sorry for my Tifosi, for my supporters. They always believed in Damiano Cunego but for me it was very, very hard to find the motivation. So I decided to retire. I thought now it’s better to do something else, and now I have a new business, new stimulus, new activities, new relationships. Yeah, I am happy.

Damiano Cunego Tour of Lombardy 2008Cunego celebrates his third victory in Il Lombardia in 2008

What makes someone especially suited to Lombardia? You were a good climber but you also had a fast sprint, right? That seemed to be quite important.

It’s quite difficult to answer this question but I try. Like I told you before, you need some characteristics like, being a good climber at the same time as being a rider suitable for a one-day race. You have to be resilient and fast as the same time. It’s not easy to find. I say always I’m lucky but at the same time very able because I was able to work well in both directions.

I was able to train to perform on the climbs. Now many riders are doing the same work I was years ago. Maybe Vincenzo Nibali, who usually wins alone. It’s not very usual that he arrives with two or three other riders.

There haven’t been too many Italian winners in the last few years...

Yes. Sometimes many journalists criticise Italy because we don’t win enough but for me it’s not true. If you watch we have Vincenzo Nibali, one of the best riders in the last fifty years. We have a good sprinter like Elia Viviani, who did massive things. I’ve had the pleasure to see the guy who won Flanders this year, from EF, [Alberto] Bettiol.

This year I went to see the Giro d’Italia under-23 and I think we have many many young riders who can have a good career in the next few years, but they need to move up step by step. Fortunately in the last few years, in Italy, the teams, the managers, the trainers they understand that these guys they need time to improve. Years ago it wasn’t this way because they bring the best riders, send them to the pros and expect them to win immediately. And you burn the step by step.

I’m conscious that in Italy we are working very well for the future. I’m a little bit scared also because I saw many Colombian guys who in the climbs are very strong, more than the other guys. Good for Colombia but not for Italy and the rest of Europe. The Colombian guys come from cities and little villages at altitude, above 2000m. Our guys from Italy going at the same level as this have to work a lot. Good for Colombia means much work for us.

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