Monday, April 21, 2008


Amstel Gold: The Italian Dilemma

Watching the Amstel Gold Race on Sunday morning gave me a bit of deja vu, somehow sucking me right back to 2005. It wasn’t just the race that triggered the flashbacks, but rather the combination of watching the familiar scenes around Maastricht and stepping out briefly into the weather outside my own front door.

Here in the mid-Atlantic United States, it was one of those grey spring days with twilight from dawn to dusk and drenching rain showers blowing through every hour. Even in those interludes when it didn’t look to be raining, I was greeted by those huge, soaking rogue drops that make me look above for a dripping tree, only to get a clear view of a cloudy sky hovering like a low ceiling over the horizon. They were the type of clouds you could have ridden up into if there were a decent hill around, but standing in the flatlands, you could only peer out through the mist sandwiched between them and soaked ground.

With the rain pounding the orange tulips flat out in the lawn and the scenes of the Cauberg playing out on the computer screen, it was easy to make the mental leap back to the grey Amstel of 2005. Back then, I was perched shivering on top of that nasty little hill in a press room located in a white, corrugated steel building. Sitting in a metal building on a wet 50 degree day is a bit chilly, but the facilities were a lesson in effective truck-based service provision. Out one side of the building, a pink and black T-Mobile truck was pumping out the wi-fi signal necessary to get text and pictures out of the Ardennes hills, while a trailer on the other side housed what must have been one of the world’s finest port-o-johns. It had everything: urinals, stalls, toilet paper, running water, soap, flowers, and a 60-year-old woman who would hop up off her stool in the corner to wipe down the urinal as soon as you stepped away, making you feel somehow guilty even if you’d been exceptionally careful. And, of course, there was the Amstel truck, keeping the assembled press in good spirits by continually restocking the in-suite bar. I’m not really sure where the sandwiches and coffee were coming from, but I was certainly glad they were there.

Not everything functioned as well as the press room in 2005 though. Unlike this year’s edition, that one was held in the same eternal twilight, chilly air, and rain that blanketed the mid-Atlantic yesterday, as well as an intense fog that grounded the TV helicopters, preventing the camera motos from transmitting any live television signals. By the time the fixed position cameras on the Cauberg kicked in, we were running from the press room to that bridge you can see in the coverage to see what the race looked like, since we’d only have three chances all day.

Yes, indeed, despite the similarities in weather, there were several differences between my Amstel Gold 2005 and 2008 experiences. I saw more of the race this year, made my own coffee, and the wi-fi signal was Verizon instead of T-Mobile. The plumbing is inside the house, and if there’s a need for wiping down the toilet, I’ll likely be told in no uncertain terms to do it my damn self. But as far as the winners, there were some similarities to be had.

In 2005, the winner was Danilo Diluca (then Liguigas, now LPR), an Italian who despite his classics success always dreamed of winning the Giro d’Italia. He went on to take Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, but came up short at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, thus failing to repeat the incredible Ardennes sweep that countryman Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) had achieved the year before. Though he failed to complete the triple that year, Diluca would return in 2007 to take his Liege before going on to realize his Giro d’Italia win, snapping closed the mouths of people like me, who always thought (and sometimes said) that he was just kidding himself.

Diluca’s Giro goal was easy to dismiss, if only because several other Italians with similar profiles and better results – Michele Bartoli, Paolo Bettini, and Davide Rebellin – had previously chased the same dream and failed. Further, once they finally cast off the shackles of grand tour expectations and surrendered to the idea that they were classics riders, and great ones at that, their careers leapt forward. Sure, we were dismissive, but we were just acting in Diluca’s best interests.

Despite the weight of history being against him, Diluca somehow (and many people continue to question just how) made it work, as has 2008 winner Damiano Cunego (Lampre), who now boasts the same Giro d’ Italia/Giro di Lombardia/Amstel Gold lines on his resume as Diluca. The difference between Cunego’s grand tour/classic equation, Diluca’s, and Bettini, Bartoli, and Rebellin’s, however, is that he’s approached it from opposite direction. Unlike his countrymen, who all notched classics before getting grand tour ideas, Cunego tasted his first big success at the 2004 Giro d’Italia, where he won four stages and the overall, and succeeded in pissing off Gilberto Simoni to no end (the former being much more difficult than the latter). He went on to take the first of his two Giro di Lombardia titles that fall, which capped off a year that also saw him win the Giro del Trentino and a host of Italian semi-classics: the GP Industria & Artigianato-Larciano, Giro dell’Appennino, GP Nobili Rubinetterie, and the GP Fred Mengoni.

But promising classics results be damned – you win a grand tour at 23, and you’ll hear only one whisper in your ear, the one that says “Tour de France.” Cunego did manage to capture the white jersey of the best young rider at that event last summer, but for someone with a three-year-old maglia rosa hanging on their wall already, that’s a bit of a hollow victory. He’s tried to recapture the magic at the Giro d’Italia several times as well, but to no avail.

So now more than ever, the whisperers are starting to go the other way on Cunego, telling him that, hey, maybe he’s a classics rider after all. And that’s really pissing him off, according to this post-Amstel article by VeloNews’ Andrew Hood. Frankly, Cunego can be irritated all he wants, but when you’re a 5’4” Italian with a good little kick, a pair of Lombardias and an Ardennes win under your belt, you start looking a hell of a lot more like Paolo Bettini than Paolo Savoldelli.

With Cunego mounting an all-out bid for the Tour this year, going so far in his mission as to buck the Italian dogma and forgo the Giro, July could hold all the answers for the 26-year-old. If he meets with success there, he’ll no doubt start developing insidious habits like showing up in low-speed wind tunnels and spending perfectly good spring classics seasons riding deserted Tour de France climbs with an unmarked car and a film crew behind him. He also will have pulled off something pretty unique in modern cycling – going from grand tour winner, to classics star, and back to grand tour winner. So far, even Diluca has only gone in one direction.

All of that, of course, would be phenomenal, and would make for a career profile not seen since Bernard Hinault (no, various combinations of Vueltas and Clasicas San Sebastian don’t count for entrance to the grand tour/classic pantheon). But if Cunego falls a bit too short in his Tour bid, that bit of failure could open up the door to a set of classics palmares that, with a good 10 more years yet to develop could put many of his predecessors to shame.

Parting Shots

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