Student-athlete: Cunego switches teams, enrolls in classes

The Italian will step down to second division team Vini Fantini-Nippo and take classes on sports science

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MILAN (VN) — Italian Damiano Cunego is returning to school, changing teams from Lampre-Merida to Vini Fantini-Nippo, and thinking of retirement after years of riding off the mark.

“My wife, who studies medicine, encouraged me and the idea grew to return to school,” the 2004 Giro d’Italia winner told Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper. “The idea is to have a future not far from now as a sports coach. It’s always appealed to me.”

Vini Fantini-Nippo announced October 3 that the 33-year-old Cunego will join for 2015 and 2016 and that it will jump from a third division team registered in Japan to a Italian-registered second division team. Cunego will help the squad make its step up with signings like Vincenzo Nibali’s 22-year-old brother Antonio, Matteo Busato (26), Giacomo Berlato (22), and Nicolas Marini (21).

Cunego leaves behind the pink and blue colors of Lampre after 10 years. He joined the Italian first division team in 2005 after winning the 2004 Giro d’Italia at 22 years old and the Giro di Lombardia with Saeco. He went on to win the Giro di Lombardia two more times, the 2008 Amstel Gold Race, and the 2006 young rider classification at the Tour de France.

Since 2009, however, Cunego has failed to make much of a mark in the peloton. He won five times, including a stage at the 2011 Tour de Romandie in Ramont and one in the 2012 Giro del Trentino. This year, his best result was third place in a Vuelta a España stage.

“I’m going to guide the younger riders in the team. I can do that,” Cunego told La Gazzetta dello Sport of his new team.

“I know they are looking for results, and I want them too, but you won’t hear me saying, ‘I’ll do so.’ How can I? As you can see, for some time now, I haven’t won.”

Cunego struggled to live up to his promise after winning the Giro at such a young age. Italy turned its attention to Ivan Basso and Riccardo Riccò, and turned away when they were caught doping. Afterwards, Nibali came along and Cunego gave up racing for grand tour victories.

He explained that the time was right to move from Lampre, but that it is useless to think that he should have searched for fresh air in recent years. “Besides,” he added, “I don’t have a time machine.”

Cunego will race one more time for Lampre at the Japan Cup. Afterwards, he will spend his time helping Vini Fantini-Nippo and its riders earn one of the wildcard spots in the 2015 Giro d’Italia and in the Ardennes Classics. He also will be attending sports science classes at the University of Verona.

“It’s not enough to be a cyclist to be able to understand training,” he said. “You can’t just be an ex-pro and say, ‘I did it this way.’ Besides staying updated, you need to be able to explain to riders why you train in a certain way. That training theory is priceless.”

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