Three days into the Tour de France, Damiano Cunego is already in yellow. Yes, the general classification may say that Lampre's Little Prince is down in 43rd place overall going into Stage 3, but, having seen and spoken to him this morning, I can exclusively reveal that Cunego was resplendent in yellow in Saint Malo. Yellow hair, not the yellow jersey that is...
Cunego's new coiffure is bright, very bright. His mood was also pretty sunny in Saint Malo this morning. He was one of the riders caught in the tangle of bikes and bodies in the final three kilometres yesterday, had to swap steeds with team-mate Paolo Tiralongo and eventually moseyed in some way behind his fellow GC contenders. Fortunately, the three kilometre rule applied and his time deficit was annulled. He told me today that he emerged unscathed apart from a small scratch on the inside of his left leg.
The Tour really begins tomorrow for Cunego. "If I lose anything less than a minute from the top men tomorrow, that'll be a good result," the Italian said of the 29.5 kilometre time-trial around Cholet . "I'm feeling good on the bike, pedaling nicely," he said, despite two stages in Brittany which most agree have been heavy going.
Cunego's Lampre directeurMaurizioPiovani says that anyone who underestimates Cunego tomorrow will do so at their peril. Piovani pointed to his two most recent time trials, at the Tour of the Basque Country and the Tour of Switzerland. He was fourth in both. Admittedly, that was on a pair of extremely hilly courses, but the lad is clearly making progress against the watch. Incidentally, Piovani reckoned that, behind Fabian Cancellara, Alejandro Valverde was his favourite for tomorrow's stage.
I'm very curious to see how Cunego fares in this Tour. My hunch about him mirrors Lance Armstrong's (recently expounded in Procycling), namely that the 2004 Giro champion isn't what the French call "un homme du Tour". That said, I also think that many of us are guiltily ensconced in the second-is-nowhere school of thought. Cunego might not win, but he could sneak inside the top five in Paris on July 27, and who's to say that wouldn't be a highly respectable result.
The other rider carrying Italian hopes at this Tour, Riccardo Riccò, is another one whose potential in this race is difficult to gauge. Most of us would be happy enough if he spiced up a press conference or two with a few of his trademark verbal tirades, but his Saunier Duval directeur sportif, Matxin Fernandez, insists that "The Cobra" isn't just here to, say, wind up Filippo Pozzato. Noble as that objective would be...
"Riccardo's motivated, he's enthusiastic, and he wants to win a stage and maybe win the white jersey," said Matxin. "We certainly hope and expect that he'll finish the Tour. Honestly, though, he didn't know that he was doing this race until ten days ago, and we don't want to put any pressure on him. It'd be unfair to expect a great GC result from him, then leave him feeling guilty if he didn't achieve that."
Guilt-ridden or not, Riccò was left contemplating a sizeable dent in his general classification ambitions tonight. Waylaid along with Denis Menchov after a pile-up with 23km to go, the Giro runner up eventually crossed the line just under 40 seconds behind the other GC men.
Oh, and we didn't have to wait long for that first tirade from the Cobra.
Cornered on his way back to the Saunier Duval team bus, Riccò hissed: "Why haven't you journalists figured out yet that I'm not here for the general classification?"
To which the obvious answer would be: "Maybe because your team-mates spent the last 20 kilometres grinding on the front to keep you in the race..."
Anyway, you want my verdict on where his Tour will go from here? The time lost today will prove insignificant to Riccò, who will win stage six to Super Besse, struggle through the Pyrenees, then contend again at Pratonevoso and Alpe d'Huez.
And the white jersey? Well, if he's looking for omens, he might want to reach for the hair dye first....