A number of us tabbed Damiano Cunego as the man to beat, or at least make Ivan Basso sweat, over the numerous climbs that would decide this year's Giro d'Italia. Obviously it didn't happen, and it was kind of disappointing to see the wunderkind 24-year-old ex-champ scrapping for fourth place, twelve minutes back.
As examined yesterday, he didn't exactly fail in the climbs. I'm willing to take the Koppenberg line here and say that a guy who loses time to Basso each day on the big mountain passes isn't exactly a failure. And if you look at his results, subtract Basso and you've got a rider who was one decent -- even mediocre -- time trial away from making a push to win.
But that time trial... what a bloodletting. He lost a minute for every 10km, over a flat course. How can a guy be capable of wattage that puts him with or near the leaders in the mountains, and suck so bad in the ITT?
More on the flip:
First off, are time trials still the race of truth? When this tag was first applied, guys were riding standard roadies and just hammering on their own, no special advantages whatsoever. Nowadays, the science of aerodynamics has advanced to the point where guys who try can find significant advantages in their positioning and equipment. Hasn't this evolved into just another specialty? Aren't they won by the highest paid riders and best-funded teams, who can afford the gear innovations and the most time in the wind tunnel perfecting positions?
This is a rhetorical exercise, because time trials aren't going anywhere. Whether they are as meaningful as they used to be or not, all Grand Tours (and the lion's share of lesser stage races) will continue to be decided by an equal share of climbing and time trialing ability.
So, for Cunego to continue to pursue the Giro, he either has to develop his time trialing significantly, or hope for a few years where that skill is de-emphasized. Had this year's ITT been hillier, even a mountain time trial, it's likely Cunego's time would have been at least moderately competitive. But in those years with a more traditional, flat course, Cunego will have to struggle to develop his efforts.
And if you look at the world's great time trialers, only Ullrich was dominant from his earliest years; most guys have to work at it for a few years before getting results. In the 2003 Tour, Basso lost 6 minutes to Ullrich at Cap Decouverte; in 2004, he lost 2:50 to Lance at Besancon; by 2005, he lost only 1:54, edging Landis and Evans at St. Etienne. Point is, it's a specialty which good riders can master, over time. It's not too late for Cunego, at age 24, to make real gains in limiting his losses.
So does Cunego stay the course and hope Basso doesn't do the double every year, or at least that he hits his decline while the Kid is still fresh as a daisy? This is the likely choice. But Cunego should at least consider an alternative: the Classics! He's about as well-suited to winning in the Ardennes as Valverde is, a terrific package of both climbing and sprinting skill. Right now Valverde's closing speed looks superior, but Cunego could overcome the difference. It's worth contemplating, at least for the next year or two while he develops the full package he needs to be a serious Grand Tour contender.