Despite being at only 65% of his best, Gilberto Simoni feels that victory on Mont Faron shows he is
PIC BY TDWSPORT.COM Amid all the hype about cycling’s new world order – of the Valverdes of the Boonens and of the ProTour – it was a pair of Renaissance men who had their day on Mont Faron in Paris-Nice on Friday. As Gilberto Simoni crossed the finish-line in first place – after a year of personal turmoil – he roared the roar of a man who had returned from the brink of cycling oblivion. Many a pundit was ready to write Simoni off when team-mate Damiano Cunego seized his Giro d’Italia crown last year. The 33 year old’s plight seemed ever more desperate when Simoni declined the chance to move out from under Cunego’s heels this winter. It was doubly ironic, therefore, that while Simoni was securing the Lampre-Caffita team’s first victory of the season, Cunego was marooned in the snow as he tried in vain to inspect some of the key climbs on the 2005 Giro route. “This proves that I am not finished as a rider,” said a beaming Simoni at the finish-line on Mont Faron. “I am so pleased with myself. My own determination amazes me sometimes. To come back from what happened last year and win this stage is incredible. I rank this alongside my wins on the Angliru in the Vuelta and the Monte Zoncolan in the Giro. Does this win send a message to Damiano? I say that the biggest problem will be for our opponents at the Giro.” Simoni spoke effusively about the great climbers who have etched their names into the legend of Mont Faron, most often in the Tour of the Mediterranean. It was indeed a former winner on the climb, Alexandre Vinokourov, who inspired Simoni’s victory. The Kazakh rode below-par to finish in 29th place today, but his victory here two years ago was Simoni’s blueprint. “I attacked with a 53×23 gear, in the exact spot where Vinokourov went two years ago. I finished second then. My form isn’t brilliant but my determination got me through. This win restores my confidence for the races to come, including the Giro. The road ahead is no longer all uphill.” Despite the Italian’s assurances to the contrary, Cunego may still prove to be Simoni’s biggest obstacle. Asked tonight whether relations between the two had mellowed, Simoni smiled mischievously and said “there was no problem” between them. Sources from within Lampre-Caffita report that the two have indeed declared a ceasefire of sorts – but that cordiality is easily maintained when you don’t speak to each other. Rumours also persists that confusion still reigns at Lampre-Caffita following the merger of Lampre and Saeco. The team has two managers – old Lampre boss Giuseppe Saronni and Claudio Corti, formerly of Saeco – and close observers say it is also made up of two distinct factions. Having won the Giro d’Italia under Saronni at Lampre 2001 and railed against the Saeco staff after last year’s debacle, Simoni is naturally drawn to the opposite side of the team to Cunego. “The team has to give more,” Simoni said ambiguously when asked about the alleged sticking points tonight. “This is an important team, so we must try harder to bring the team together,” Simoni said. Lampre-Caffita directeur sportif Fabrizio Bontempti then intervened to explain that it “was just a matter of time” before the two sets of riders and staff were singing from the same hymn sheet. Earlier, Bontempi had gushed praise for Simoni’s determination. “He is only 65 per cent fit but he can pull things out like almost no other rider. We expected other riders to be at the front today – like Rebellin or Valverde. Gilberto was helped by the fact that he lost time yesterday; I told him that it might be a good thing. He is a typical mountain man – hard as nails.” Simoni hinted tonight that he could ride the Tour de France alongside Cunego later this year. Simoni suggested that he may target the mountain competition left wide open by Richard Virenque’s retirement at the end of 2004.