Damiano Cunego and Gilberto Simoni have ended their long-running feud. Will the sun still rise in the East tomorrow?
According to an interview published in Gazzetta dello Sport, the two Italian climbers met up at a charity benefit in Milano and encouraged by both wives, decided to forgive and forget the events of the 2004 Giro d'Italia. The decision to make peace did not come all at once, but rather slowly, with "intermediate signs along the way," explained Cunego. "Now all is tranquilo with us," he said.
The story begins four years ago.
Back in 2004, Damiano Cunego and Gilberto Simoni both rode for Saeco-Cannondale. Giuseppe Martinelli, the former DS to Marco Pantani at Mercatone Uno and the mastermind of Stefano Garzelli's sole Giro d'Italia victory, directed the team. In Cunego, he believed he'd found his next great star, the rider who could take the place of Pantani in the popular imagination and allow Martinelli to bask in the reflected glow of his achievements. Cunego found little to dislike in his mentor's ambitions. Young and talented, he'd won a junior World Championship and hungered for more.
Gilberto Simoni, meanwhile, entered the 2004 Giro d'Italia as team leader of Saeco with three Giro wins to his credit. He hardly expected a challenge from his 22 year old team-mate, despite Cunego's win at the Giro del Trentino, a traditional tune-up race. The first sign of his mistake came on the mountain-top finish at Montevergine Di Mercogliano. Cunego won the stage, and lifted the Maglia Rosa off his team-mate's shoulders. Simoni, too marked to attack on his own, could only watch.
Still, the team maintained the fiction that Simoni remained the team leader. That fiction dissolved during stage 16, on the road from San Vendemiano to Falzes. Saeco placed riders in the early break. Then, in an effort to crush the weak team of race leader Jaroslav Popovych, Cunego attacked the main field on the Passo Furcia, facing Popovych with the dilemma of chasing Cunego or staying with Simoni. It was brilliant team tactics, but it also meant the end of Simoni's reign as Saeco's team leader. Cunego won the stage and finished with more than two minutes in hand over Simoni. Cunego's hold on the Giro inexorably tightened.
Simoni did his best to appear gracious, but inside he clearly seethed. Two days later, the climber from Trento attacked on the lower slopes of Bormio 2000, one of the least poetically named of Italian climbs. Behind Simoni, Saeco rode a stiff tempo to defend the race lead of Cunego. Maybe Simoni sought only the stage win, or maybe he wanted to take back the Rosa. Certainly, he attacked far enough away from the finish to challenge the general classification. The field dwindled under the unrelenting pressure of Saeco. Soon, a small chase group formed, which Cunego joined. The race leader contributed to the pace-making, helping to close down the gap to his team-mate up the road. Both Saeco riders reached the finish together, and Cunego easily sprinted away from the group of five for the win.
At the finish, in front of the assembled press, Simoni's temper boiled over. Furious, he called Cunego, "bastardo!" Then, stormed off to the team bus. Simoni accused Cunego of riding against him by contributing to the chase and ruining his chances for the stage win. Cunego maintained that he'd ridden simply to defend his Maglia Rosa and that he'd tried to lead Simoni out at the finish. To Simoni and his supporters, Cunego's statements rang disenguous, but the press by and large supported Cunego's version of events, casting Cunego as Italy's new darling, "il Piccolo Principe," and Simoni as a bitter has-been.
The feud deepened the following day, when Simoni made an early move with Stefano Garzelli. The two former Giro winners rode hard together, but behind, the team of Damiano Cunego controlled the gap and doomed Simoni's efforts to overturn the classification. In an acknowledgement of the move's futility, Simoni did not contest the sprint, giving Garzelli the stage win. In the end, he had nothing to show for his long day out. The press stoked the fires of the feud, a drama too good to let lie. On the final podium in Milano, Simoni's body language showed his anger with the race outcome and the crowning of Cunego as Italy's newest great champion.
The next year, the two again rode together, this time for Lampre. The feud continued, though in muted form, and soon, the two parted ways as Gilberto Simoni moved on to Saunier Duval. In the meantime, other dramas overshadowed the Simoni-Cunego rivalry. The rise of Ivan Basso, in particular, shifted the press focus away from the former team-mates.
Along the way, a curious reversal occured. In subsequent races, Cunego proved unable to match his 2004 success, and Ivan Basso took on the role of Italian hero sketched out for Cunego. With his fluid style on the bike and his appropriation of the mythical images of Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali (one journalist claimed he combined the character of both), Basso seized the spotlight as Cunego slipped into the shadows. Same as he ever was, Simoni refused to concede to Basso, and kept up his feisty efforts to win still another Giro. His scrappy determination regained him some of the respect he'd lost on the summit of Bormio 2000. His longevity in the sport led the press to portray him increasingly as the wise elder, though this transition did not come without its pitfalls.
At the 2006 Giro d'Italia, Simoni called Basso an "extraterrestrial" on the live post-race television show. Basso was irate, understanding that Simoni had accused him of doping. Basso denied the charges, and the press proved quick to see a return of Simoni the Sore Loser, last seen in 2004. The exchange came after a stage in which Simoni had appeared to wait for Basso on the descent off the Mortirolo, on the belief that Basso would gift him the stage win at Sestrière in exchange. The subequent disgrace of Basso in the Puerto Affair improved Simoni's image, as he no longer looked the sore loser, but rather the determined rider who'd refused to concede to the doping Basso. Cunego, meanwhile, just seemed lost.
In 2008, Cunego skipped the Giro, rode a disastrous Tour, and found his main successes in the classics. Simoni, meanwhile, smiled and chatted up the press at the Giro d'Italia, and rode high in the standings until he bonked in the cold and rain late in the race. In his collapse, he showed his humanity and his courage, the classic characteristics of the great champions. Simoni's relationship with the press and public image had never been better.
Cunego went on in October to finish second at Worlds and to win his third Giro di Lombardia in heroic style. At last, he seemed to emerge from the shadows. In an interview after Lombardia, he admitted that enmity still endured between Simoni and him. But it seemed an increasingly irrelevent rivalry. Answering critics of his grand tour performance in recent years, Cunego challenged them to look at the records of the riders who had beaten him. Look where they ended up, he said in an interview with L'Équipe. Cunego did not mention Ivan Basso by name, but he made the implication clearly. For Simoni and Cunego, the enemy of each rider's enemy had become his friend."I and Simoni have made peace."
Tuesday, Cunego recounted to Gazzetta dello Sport that the two riders met recently at a charity benefit. Cunego's wife Margherita hugged Simoni's third daughter Clarissa, and then, the two riders talked things over. "Now all is tranquilo between us," he said. Cunego noted that four years had passed, and "one grows, one matures."
The two climbers also talked about next year's Giro d'Italia. Cunego said that he is all but certain to ride the centenary Giro, despite the doubts created previously by Beppe Saronni in the press. Cunego believes that the 2009 course is for attackers, and that he and Simoni can work together. "Ivan Basso and Lance Armstrong will make a common block, because of their friendship and their way of riding," he explained. "We climbers must find a counter-measure. Gilberto Simoni knows the roads of the Giro best of anyone," said Cunego, and he revealed that the two talked about working together next May. Discussing the course, he said, it "makes me think of traps and attacks."
Cunego named as his objectives Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Giro d'Italia, and the World Championships in Mendrisio. Cunego said he hopes to be the "heir to Bettini," but it's clear he has not given up on another Giro win. He said he had not put on any extra weight this winter, thanks to the efforts of his wife. "Margherita is the best," he said. She's been feeding him Risotto with radiccio and almonds (amarone). Again, he mentioned that he had matured, and suggested that he has become more professional about his training and diet than in the past. When asked if he wanted a Ferrari like his team-mate World Champion Alessandro Ballan, Cunego said he prefers "to invest in bricks."
So at last, the two climbers have made peace and let go of their shared past. One feud in Italian cycling is over. No doubt we have not much time to wait before another comes to take its place.