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What About the Kid?

My post yesterday contending that this year's Giro was a missed opportunity for Gilberto Simoni was, as is often the case, an opening of a discussion in which I learned a little more about the race, leaving me a little less sure about my original conclusion. In my world, exposing my ignorance is a good thing, as long as I'm less ignorant by day's end. And maybe this is useful to others too.

The lesson of yesterday was that although Simoni dropped time early on that he couldn't quite make up later, perhaps the course really didn't give a rider of his qualities much choice. The shorter, faster climbs are more like those you'd find in a classic than a grand tour, and the true grand tour climbs of the last few days didn't dictate the final outcome. [Assuming it holds.]

Enter Danilo DiLuca, a top-shelf classics rider and probably on his way to a second Pro Tour championship in three years. This was his chance at the Giro... he's in his prime, was fully fit, and had the ideal course for his skills. DiLuca seized the moment from day one and never really let go.

So if Simoni was disadvantaged by such a course as this, what of Damiano Cunego? Seventh and third in the last two editions of Liege, and a former winner of the Tour of Lombardy, Cunego does have a classics pedigree. Wasn't this a great course for him too?

Cunego is having an unspectacular year, and has shown his good-not-great form throughout this Giro. When he has gone on the attack, he hasn't had the strength to carry it through. On the shorter climbs, DiLuca has led the charge, while some combination of Simoni, Leonardo Piepoli, and Andy Schleck have animated the longer efforts. Cunego has rarely been spotted on the front of any stage. Ideally, he would have figured in the finale of some of the classic-like climbs, and he did make the final three on the Montevergine stage, won by DiLuca. But he fell back on stage 12, missed the classic-like finish in Briançon, lost time in the Oropa ITT, and otherwise clung to the leaders in the remaining climbs.

The answer to "why" may come on Saturday, the Giro's only true grand tour time trial. Much was made of Cunego's offseason focus on time-trialling, a past achilles heel but also an area of opportunity, if his 10th place in the final 2006 Tour de France ITT was any indication. If Cunego has indeed advanced his time trialling at some expense to his climbing, it explains his overall performance: right form, wrong race.

Even if he doesn't show brilliant TT-ing ability, Cunego's sunny self-evalutations aren't without justification. He's still only 25, yet to enter his prime years -- a major factor in grand tours. It's no accident that of the favorites, only DiLuca could be considered "in his prime." Moreover, neither of the two true champions on hand -- Savoldelli and Simoni -- had any record of success in the Giro at Cunego's age. Simoni won the "Baby Giro" in 1993 at age 21, but didn't win the adult version for another eight years, following podium finishes in 1999 and 2000. Savoldelli (not a good comparison, but hey) won in 2002 for the first time, at age 29, after runner-up in 1999 and 14th in 2001.

Cunego's development as a stage racer is coming along fine. I've posited that he might be better off pursuing the classics, but then it's not my job to be patient while a future Giro winner hones his craft. All signs point to Cunego bagging his second Giro win in the future, and perhaps several more, with time and persistence... provided Andy Schleck and Riccardo Ricco and maybe others don't pass him along the way. Cunego keeps being measured against other champions, but despite the maglia rosa hanging in his closet, it's still not a fair standard for him just yet.