Damiano Cunego won his first race of the 2012 season at the Giro di Trentino on Wednesday, showing strong early season form ahead of his biggest 2012 target, May's Giro d'Italia. The Lampre veteran was set up perfectly by his other teammates, namely Michele Scarponi, and added some much needed confidence with his victory.
Cunego decided to skip La Fleche Wallonne in favor of preparing ahead of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, where he'll now line up as one of the top contenders. whether he'll finally be able to unlock the winning combination in the world's oldest classic is yet to be determined.
Like or hate Cunego, his career arc has been both unique, confusing, disappointing and electrifying over the course of the last decade plus. Beginning his career as a grand tour winner, Cunego had several down years before getting back in the mix the last few years. He has classics wins at the Amstel Gold and Tour of Lombardy on his palmares from past seasons, and a win at Liege would go a long way toward further cementing his legend in Italian cycling lore.
Having finished in the top five twice at Fleche Wallonne in the past though makes his absence from this year's race puzzling. He'll need a strong showing at Liege to prevent criticism regarding his skipping of the Fleche. Unfortunately for Cunego however, he'll face incredibly tough competition in the final hilly classic.
Now in his 30's Damiano Cunego is no longer considered a young rider. He has crossed over into veteran status and with that comes the realization that his time chasing top results is dwindling. With Scarponi flying the grand tour flag as team leader, Cunego finds himself in the unfamiliar role of super domestique and stage hunter. He should provide excellent support for Scarponi in the mountains while looking for a chance to sneak away under the right circumstances. To think though that he has any chance of winning the overall title at the Giro is unrealistic.
Assuming he stays healthy and motivated, Cunego can expect to be highly competitive for at least another five seasons. If he can add between three and five classics between now and then, he'll go down in history as one of the best all-around riders of his generation. If however he fails to ever break through at another classic (not likely), he'll be remembered as a good, not great cyclist.