Italian Damiano Cunego put on an epic display of will and power as he soloed uncontested to the Stage 6 summit victory atop Qilian Mountain at the 16th Tour of Qinghai Lake (2.HC) in China on Friday.
The 35-year-old Nippo-Vini Fantini rider and former Giro d’Italia winner made it look effortless and he seemingly floated up the hilltop finish sitting at 4,120 metres in elevation — UCI Asia Tour’s highest summit finish.
Cunego crossed the line after completing the 65-kilometre stage in a time of 2 hours 57 seconds, followed by fellow Italian Antonio Santoro (Monkey Town Continental Team) at 1 minute 11 seconds back and last year’s race winner Sergiy Lagkuti (Kolss) of the Ukraine at 1:26.
“In the first [KOM], I see Mauricio Ortega attack and I followed him,” explained Cunego, who attacked in the final 5km. “In that moment I could continue my attack because today I was prepared to win. The last climb is very long and very high, breathing is very difficult.
“I had more energy today and I am so thankful to my team for helping me today, and in the next days I will return the favour and help them in the flats for a win.”
When Eurosport asked what — if any — climbs Qilian Mountain reminded him of, Cunego was quick to compare it to one of the sport’s most iconic climbs in northern Italy.
Italian Damiano Cunego (Nippo Vini-Fantini) launched a solo attack in final 5km to claim the uphill mountain stage win at 4,120m in elevation at the Tour of Qinghai Lake on Friday, July 21, 2017. Photo: Adrian Hoe.
Image credit: Eurosport
“The Stelvio is the closest climb I can think of back in Europe that compares to here, but it is less than 3,000m, and today was more than 4,000,” said Cunego, who won the Bormio stage at the 2004 Giro in similar fashion. “Today it was very difficult for me and the other riders, because there was simply no air.”
The second-place finish was Santoro’s second of the race after reaching the podium on Stage 4 in third. According to Monkey Town director Paul Tabak, the race is far from over.
“Today we got some minutes back and for us tour is still open,” Tabak told Eurosport. “The guys are all in and we have all seven riders, so let’s make war the next several days.”
While the team formerly known as Parkhotel-Valkenburg has its sights still set on GC, Santoro, who is sixth overall (+1:49) is not the only one as the race witnessed its fifth lead change in six stages.
Venezuelan Yonathan Monsalve (Qinghai Tianyoude), who finished fourth on the day (+1:28), lifted the yellow jersey off Italian Davide Mucelli (Meridiana Kamen), who held it the last two days. Mucelli now sits seven seconds back in second place, while new KOM Ortega is now third at 20 seconds.
The Colombian from RTS-Monton Racing took the polka-dot jersey from Belarusian Ilia Koshevoy (Wilier Triestina-Selle Italia) after Ortega was the first to ascend the lone KOM ahead of Cunego, 2015 race winner Radoslav Rogina (Adria Mobil), Koshevoy and Santoro.
Both Stage 4 winner Ahmet Örken (Torku Şekerspor) and Yevgeniy Gidich (Vino-Astana Motors) held on to the green points and blue ‘Best Asian Rider’ jerseys respectively for another day.
The sixth of 13 stages featured three laps 8.8km laps around the Qilian township before turning toward Qilian Mountain in the final 38.7km. Kazushige Kuboki (Nippo-Vini Fantini) won the sole intermediate sprint at the 26km mark ahead of Ivan Balykin (Torku Şekerspor) and Rafael Andriato (Wilier Triestina-Selle Italia). The field split in to two main groups at the 58km mark, with the first group extending to a 1:40 lead over the second.
Saturday’s Stage 7 (169km) once again pierces the 3,500m elevation mark and features two intermediate sprints and a sole categorised climb (Cat. 1), but should favour the sprinters with a flat run in or a possible break that escapes over the climb at the 94km mark.