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‘It’s easy to arrive at the top’: Damiano Cunego’s warning for Egan Bernal

7 Feb 2020

Words Joe Robinson Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades

If you’re reading this, Egan Bernal, Damiano Cunego wants to share his experience of winning a Grand Tour at an early age.

‘It’s easy to arrive at the top; the real challenge is staying there,’ says Cunego, who retired from cycling in July 2018 at the age of 36. Like Bernal, Cunego had the world at his feet at the age of just 22. Back in 2004, the Italian finished the year as the best cyclist in the world.

That April he won the Giro del Trentino. By May he was the sixth youngest winner of the Giro d’Italia, having beaten teammate and former champion Gilberto Simoni and winning four stages in the process. Then in October he rounded off the season with victory in the final Monument of the year, Il Lombardia. Cunego finished the year ranked number one in the UCI Road World Cup – the youngest rider ever to do so.

The tifosi soon crowned Cunego Il Piccolo Principe (the Little Prince, after the famous children’s book), and everything looked primed for this compact climber from Cerro Veronese to become one of the sport’s greats, the latest campionissimo in a long line of Italian champions.

However, it didn’t work out like that. Winning a Grand Tour in your early 20s and being blessed with natural talent does not guarantee repeated success, and when Cunego looked back on his long career in his retirement, it must have been with a slight sense of ‘what could have been’ rather than what was. 

Too much, too young

Sitting in a dimly lit London wine bar, sipping a glass of Bordeaux, Cunego reminds us that three Il Lombardia victories, an Amstel Gold Race and ‘being ranked the 41st greatest cyclist ever’ does not constitute a failed career, but he candidly admits that the pressures that came with winning a Grand Tour at such a young age presented challenges that he was not ready to deal with.

‘I coped with being a champion well at first because I managed to back up the Giro with a win at Il Lombardia at the end of 2004,’ he tells Cyclist. ‘But from 2005 my life changed. I first noticed it over the winter. I would usually stay at home in Veneto to train for the coming season but I soon realised this was becoming impossible.’

Cunego was spending more time on the telephone arguing with his Saeco team managers than training. They wanted him to meet with sponsors and appear in television interviews; he wanted to ride his bike.

‘That winter I had so many engagements and I really struggled to adapt because I could no longer do the job I was paid to do. I then started to struggle mentally with the expectations,’ he says.

‘Your body then responds to your mind and the pressure began to affect my legs. I was burning unnecessary energy because I had become Giro champion and then I was not the same rider in 2005. I realised how hard it was to stay at the top. I understood that this was the life of a champion.

‘Yes, I won Lombardia three times, Amstel Gold Race and two Vuelta a España stages after that Giro but I truly believed I could win three or four Giros and I thought it would be quite easy,’ Cunego adds. ‘But winning another Giro… it just never happened.’

Cunego didn’t just fail to win another maglia rosa after the success of 2004 – he didn’t manage another Grand Tour podium and he never even won another stage of the Giro again.

The year remained an anomaly for Cunego, a single season of success that was never to be repeated throughout a career that would total 17 years before he called it a day.

The pressure of being a champion, the baggage and expectation that comes with it, and the added engagements are what Cunego believes ended his dreams of winning multiple Giro titles. They are also what threaten the chances Bernal has of repeating his Tour de France-winning exploits from this summer. 

While Cunego admits that the resources and meticulous management of Team Ineos will help protect Bernal from the world away from his bike, the Italian also knows full well that there is no escaping the obligations of a Grand Tour winner.

‘I can tell you what Egan Bernal is doing right now,’ Cunego says. ‘I can guarantee you he is busy with sponsors, local television or journalists because he is a Tour winner.’

So if you’re reading, Egan, be warned.

Italy’s demise

Cunego’s tales of caution extend beyond Bernal. He is also deeply worried about Italian cycling.

His 2004 Giro victory came in the midst of an 11-year era of Italian dominance at the race. Between 1997 and 2007, only Italian riders lifted the Trofeo Senza Fine, the Giro’s spiral trophy. Home-grown talent such as Paolo Savoldelli, Ivan Gotti and Marco Pantani dominated the general classification landscape as Italian WorldTour teams such as Mapei, Polti, Mercatone-Uno and Saeco won Grand Tours and Monuments at a canter.

Yet, after those 11 consecutive wins at the Giro in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the brakes were pulled on Italian cycling. Since 2012, only one Italian – Vincenzo Nibali – has managed to win the maglia rosa and only one other, Fabio Aru, has reached the podium.

‘I’m scared for Italian cycling because the next generation is coming from the UK, USA, Colombia, Germany… not Italy,’ says Cunego. ‘While everybody is moving forward, Italy is standing still. We are still relying on Nibali, who has had an incredible career but is now 35 and can no longer be expected to continue winning.’ 

Trek-Segafredo’s Giulio Ciccone is a rider Cunego believes could fill the daunting shoes of Nibali but at 25 years old he realistically needs a major win very soon if he is ever to fulfil his promise as Italy’s next Grand Tour hope.

Davide Formolo, who has moved to UAE-Team Emirates this winter, was also labelled as the next big thing when he broke onto the scene in 2015, but for Cunego he would be better off chasing races such as Liège-Bastogne-Liège rather than the Giro d’Italia.

Formolo will have Aru as a teammate from next year, the Sardinian who was once expected to take Nibali’s throne himself, but whose career has since been stunted by injury and illness.

Equally glaring to Cunego is that this thin crop of talented Italian Grand Tour riders all ride for foreign teams. His era was defined by dominant Italian teams in cycling’s highest echelons – Saeco, Mercatone-Uno, Lampre and Mapei to name but a few.

None of these sponsors are involved with professional cycling teams today, with the likes of Mapei shifting its cash to football. The Italian paint company now spends the same money – €18 million a year – to appear on the shirts of middling Serie A football team Sassuolo that it used to spend funding a WorldTour cycling team that once romped to five wins at Paris-Roubaix in six years.

This season will be the third straight year without an Italian team in the WorldTour, and for Cunego this lies at the heart of Italian cycling’s current malaise.

‘Italian companies have completely lost faith in cycling. Maybe it is because they see more opportunities in bigger sports like football; maybe it’s because our sport is tainted with its doping past. I’m not sure, but the interest in cycling in Italy is not what it once was,’ he says.

‘The big problem for us is that we have no Italian teams in the WorldTour and that will not change for some time. Without an Italian WorldTour team, there is no natural pathway for talented Italian riders into the top levels of our sport.’

And the solution? For Cunego it is twofold. First, it means protecting what you already have and in this case it is Gianni Savio, the grey-haired Swiss Tony-esque character in charge of Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec, Italy’s most successful team of the past few years.

He is the figure credited with not only discovering Bernal and Ivan Sosa but also providing a steady stream of Italians into the WorldTour via his ProContinental team.

‘Many Italians speak ill of Savio but it is only because of his success. People are jealous that he found riders like Bernal, but if he disappeared Italian cycling would be finished,’ Cunego asserts.

Secondly, it is about rebuilding the belief Italy once had in cycling. Finishing his career at former ProContinental squad Nippo-Vini Fantini, Cunego describes the gap in quality between that and the WorldTour ‘as almost two sports’ and that the only way to repeat the success of yesteryear is to be present again at the top.

‘Creating another champion, another Nibali, comes from having an Italian team in the WorldTour. It’s a clear and direct consequence,’ says Cunego. ‘We need to create belief in cycling again to get Italian companies investing in our sport. Then we can be successful again.’

Dark days

The elephant in the room, as it is with any rider from the early 2000s, is doping. That era of Italian dominance almost two decades ago, including the 2004 season in which Cunego shone, will forever be remembered as one of the dirtiest periods in cycling’s history.

Naturally, some will try and piece two and two together with Cunego’s annus mirabilis and the period in which it happened, but Cunego is defiant against those trying to join the dots.

‘Some people point to my performances in 2004 and the fact I was never the same rider after that. What are they trying to say? That I doped? I was clean, I was always clean,’ he says.

Cunego was there when Floyd Landis was stripped of his Tour de France title just days after riding into Paris. He was also there when Riccardo Ricco faced criminal prosecution for doping in 2008. He knows the damage doping has done to cycling and even believes part of his career could have been the collateral.

‘These incidents made me angry, they made me upset. I would think, “I am riding clean but am I riding next to somebody that is cheating?” Winning another Giro, it never happened and maybe it’s because of that.’

Man & boy

The racing career of Damiano Cunego

1981: Born in Cerro Veronese, Italy.

1999: Becomes Junior Road Race World Champion aged 18, having switched from cross-country running.

2002: Turns professional with Saeco.

2004: Becomes sixth-youngest winner of the Giro. Also wins Il Lombardia and tops the UCI Road World Cup rankings.

2005: Joins Lampre alongside former Saeco teammate Gilberto Simoni but fails to repeat 2004 success.

2006: Takes 3rd at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and 4th at the Giro before winning the young rider’s white jersey at the Tour. 

2007: Takes his second Il Lombardia win, having finished 5th at the Giro earlier in the year.

2008: Wins Amstel Gold Race and his third Il Lombardia, then takes 2nd in the UCI Road Race World Championships.

2013: Takes final victory of his career: Stage 3 of the Settimana Internazionale di Coppi e Bartali.

2017: Retires after three seasons with Nippo-Vini Fantini.

Cunego On…

… Formula 1

‘My life’s passion has always been motorsport, especially Formula 1. I am a Ferrari fan, of course – I’m Italian. A few times a year, I even get to work for Sky Italia as a race analyst on a show called Race Anatomy.’

…Winning Il Lombardia three times

‘After Alfredo Binda and Fausto Coppi, I am the most successful rider at this Monument, something I am truly proud of. I would target Lombardy by treating the Vuelta a España as a training ride, only targeting certain stages that suited me to get into shape for the Italian autumn Classics. It was the perfect preparation.’

…His relationship with Gilberto Simoni

‘He was a man of few words when we were teammates and I think he struggled having a rival in his own team, especially after I beat him at the 2004 Giro. Everyone thinks we are still rivals but we made peace a long time ago and we are actually good friends now.’