Update [2006-7-25 11:16:25 by chris]: - Now, with coherence!
Damiano Cunego has emerged as one of the sport's truly intriguing GC contenders this year. We all remember him as a fresh-faced 22-year-old, riding into the maglia rosa as if he didn't know any better, and confirming his closing speed along with his climbing at the Giro di Lombardia, where his win in the race of the falling leaves left him ranked #1 on the circuit for 2004.
He's experienced a few growing pains since then, to say the least...
2005 was a complete wash, owing to an Epstein Barr-related infection that sapped his energy all year. So this season was all about getting back on track, and focusing on the Giro, where he expected a shot at pink but turned in an up-and-down performance that didn't see him looking especially strong until the final days, when it was too late. He came to the Tour for redemption, and now...?
A naysayer could point out that his Tour was similar to his Giro in that he looked great in week three, but only after dropping scads of time in the opening ITT and the Pyrenees. Still, he then registered two fine days and one OK one in the Alps, nabbing him the white jersey by seconds, which he improbably defended in the closing ITT. Add to this some attacking riding, and don't forget his near win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and you've got a very young rider headed in the right direction, at least.
But ... can he win the Tour?
Cunego is one of the smaller guys around, a factor cited in some of his horrendous time trial performances. He showed this past weekend that he is capable of better. But the pint-sized climbers, however talented, haven't broken through very often in Paris. The list of recent winners: Landis, Armstrong, Pantani (aha! there's one), Ullrich, Riis, Indurain, LeMond, Delgado (OK, two), Roche, Hinault, Fignon... two tours of the last thirty or so have been won by the little climbers. Not good.
Does the Tour punish smaller riders? Roberto Heras has claimed as much in the past, citing the long, hard, fast, flat stages at the outset of most Tours that can really wear out the smaller guys. On the flats, body weight -- or more specifically, momentum -- is your friend. [This is what I tell myself at each race.] This hardship, day after day, is just one factor that makes the Tour stand out from its Grand Tour brethren. The littler guys will get a bit more worn out in week 1 of most Tours.
So can the diminutive Cunego win the Tour? Can he avoid the bad days? Can he stay fresh enough? Can he ride not one but two good time trials?
If drugs really do go away, and we return to days when the best riders occasionally woke up too tired to ride right, then Cunego's days off will not be unique to him. With no dominant force out there, the next few Tours could be had more cheaply than the last several. Also, at his age Cunego can still work on his ITT skills and cover up that weakness, maybe even get to the level where it's not a weakness at all. And some years the parcours will be kinder than others... an uphill time trial, perhaps?
IMHO he can win the Tour, but he'll rarely be the favorite. He's more suited to another Giro win, or a Vuelta if he were interested. In the two other grand tours, massive amounts of climbing is celebrated, and the long flat days are fewer in number. I've also opined in the past that with his closing speed he should make a priority of any classic with some hills to it. But the Tour? He needs some work, a better course, and the ability to say no to the Giro -- a potential problem for an Italian Cycling icon.
I like the Kid as much as anyone else. To me he is an exciting talent, really fun to watch. I would love to see him ride with Cycling sage Paolo Savoldelli, who at 35 is about out of chances for himself but has a world of guidance to offer. [I'm spreading rumors of a Disco or Lampre pairing...] Lampre don't seem to be developing him well at all for the tours, but if the Kid moves to the right team, he will eventually be a force.