Italy?s Damiano Cunego (Lampre) perfectly combined his climbing and sprinting skills to win the Amstel Gold Race in his first attempt on Sunday.
Cunego was part of the decisive nine-rider move that formed on the 30th of the 31 climbs of the 257.4km race around the Dutch countryside and then controlled his rivals as he waited for the decisive sprint to the summit of the Cauberg.
Frank Schleck (CSC) tried to drop everybody with a strong surge near the top but Cunego was on his wheel, waited until the finish was insight and then jumped past the lanky rider from Luxembourg to win.
Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d?Epargne) had marked the Italian closely in the final part of the race but could not stay with Cunego and Shleck on the Cauberg and finished third at two seconds. Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) was fourth just behind and local hero Thomas Dekker (Rabobank) was fifth.
David Millar (Slipstream) finished 74th at 5-25 in the main peloton. Paul Manning (Landbouwkrediet) and Magnus Backstedt (Slipstream) did not finish.
Cunego is perfectly suited to hills and tough finish of the Amstel Gold Race but had always opted to ride the Giro del Trentino in the past as he prepared for the Giro d?Italia. He will ride the Tour de France this year and so a change in programme has allowed him to target all the Ardennes classics, and win the Amstel Gold Race at the first attempt.
Thanks to scoring 33 points for finishing fourth in the Tour of the Basque Country and 40 points for his Amstel win, Cunego also took the lead in the ProTour from Tour Down Under winner Andrei Greipel.
With his current form the Italian must also be a favourite for Wednesday?s Fleche-Wallonne and especially next Sunday?s Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
?I always knew I could win this race and it?s hugely satisfying to do it at the first attempt,” Cunego said.
“I knew that Schleck would attack on the climb to the finish because he was really strong during the race but doesn?t have a fast sprint finish. I put myself on his wheel, stayed with him, and then waited until we were about a hundred metres from the line before accelerating past him.?
?It was a nervous race because of all the climbs but thanks to my team mates we kept the race together and I started to really believe I could win it when the break got away. After that it was about keeping a cool head and controlling my rivals.?
Amstel Gold was Cunego’s third major classic win after his back to back success in the 2006 and 2007 Tour of Lombardy. However he admitted that he is only just started to have the confidence to race confidently.
?I?m on form, I showed that in the Basque Country but I think I won because I?m more relaxed in the way I approach races and because I?ve really started to believe in my ability,? he said.
?I won the Giro d?Italia in 2004 but it was only after winning the Tour of Lombardy last October that I started to have confidence in myself in the big one-day races. Now we?ll see what happens in Fleche-Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Wednesday and Sunday. Winning is a great way to start the week.?
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1. Damiano Cunego (Lampre)
2. Frank Schleck (CSC) at same time
3. Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) at two secs
4. Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner)
5. Thomas Dekker (Rabobank) both s.t
6. Christian Pfannberger (Barloworld) at 14secs
7. Serguei Ivanov (Astana) at 18secs
8. Joaquin Rodriguez (Caisse d’Epargne) at 23secs
9. Karsten Kroon (CSC) at 27secs
10. Jerome Pineau (Bouygues Telecom) at 45secs.
Kristof Vandewalle leads an early, ultimately unsuccessful break
Britain’s David Millar was there, and finished 74th. Photos by Luc Claessen/ISPA