In "The Start Ramp," veteran cycling cyber-journalist Sarah tracks and reports on the Tour's Young Rider Competition (riders under 25 on Jan. 1) and Tour first-timers.

Fränk Schleck
Fränk Schleck

Damiano Cunego
Damiano Cunego
Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Rider profiles: Fränk Schleck and Damiano Cunego

It was the mountain the Tour had been anticipating since the race began. The slopes of L'Alpe d'Huez awaited the strongest rider. There were two -- both of them in their first Tour and both of them outlasting a charging peloton. 26-year-old Fränk Schleck (a year too old for the young rider competition) and 24-year-old Damiano Cunego battled their way to the finish line and in the end it was Schleck who beat Cunego to the line. With the so-called Tour contenders hot on their heels, these two first timers showed the world that the next generation of cycling is here to stay. It was just a shame that both riders couldn't get the win.

So who are these two young men?

The stage winner, Fränk Schleck, was the first rider from Luxembourg to win at Alpe d'Huez.  In an interview with Cyclingnews , Schleck said "This morning I was feeling good and I was in a breakaway group. At the end of the day, I end up winning this fantastic stage. It will take a while before I realize that I've won over here."

Schleck is not a stranger to victory. In 2005, he won the Luxembourg
Road Race Championship and earlier in 2006 he won the Amstel Gold
Race. During 2003, his second season with CSC (his first was in 2002
as a stagiaire), Schleck came in sixth at the Milano-Torino. In 2004, he was second on stage two of the Critérium International and third on the seventh stage of the Tour de Suisse.

In addition to winning the road race championship in 2003, Schleck came in second at the Tour Méditerranéen. He was third at the Giro di
Lombardia, fourth at the Tour de Suisse and seventh at Paris-Nice. In
addition to his two wins this year, Schleck finished fourth at La Flèche Wallonne, fifth at Paris-Nice, sixth at Tour de Suisse and seventh at Liège - Bastogne - Liège.

Good results for a rider who once considered quitting cycling. In 2001, he joined Festina as a stagiaire, only to watch the team fold and leave him without a contract. It was in 2002 that he contacted Bjarne Riis (through someone they both knew from Schleck's amateur team). Riis had an opening and Schleck joined the team. He's very grateful to Riis at CSC as he told Cyclingnews: "I had a really hard time to find a new team. Only CSC gave me the opportunity and the time to grow. I'm very thankful for the chance they handed me."

Schleck's younger brother Andy also rides for CSC.

But what about the second place rider on the stage?

Young rider Damiano Cunego is also no stranger to victory, though today didn't quite go as he'd planned. But not necessarily one to get down on himself, Cunego told Cyclingnews that "I don't regret anything, and I'm happy with the way that my form is coming up. I still want to win a stage here."

Cunego started his professional career for Saeco in 2002. He won the
Giro del Medio Brenta and the Giro D'oro that same year. He also
finished second on stage one of the Bayern Rundfahrt. In 2003, still
riding for Saeco (he would continue through 2004), he won the Tour of
Qinghai Lake as well as stage seven of the same race. But it is 2004
that most people remember when they think of Cunego. Whether it's the
numerous wins this young Italian accumulated or the infighting on his
team (between himself and team leader Gilberto Simoni), 2004 was quite a year for the boy they call 'the kid.'

He won the Giro Di Lombardia, the GP Industria & Artigianato-Larciano, the Giro Dell'Appennino, the GP Nobili Rubinetterie and the GP Fred Mengoni. And if that wasn't enough, he also won the Giro del Trentino, including stages one and two. But it was the Giro d'Italia where he really made a name for himself. He won four stages (two, seven, sixteen and eighteen) and the overall race. At just 22, he'd won one of the three Grand Tours. He also had several other top ten finishes in 2004.

In 2005, having moved to Lampre, Cunego won the Japan Cup, the Trofeo Melinda and the GP Nobili Rubinetterie. He also came in second at the Tour de Romandie. Though he did not defend his overall win at the Giro in 2005, he did come in second on stages three and seven. And in 2006 he's won several more races, including the Giro del Trentino and the Giro D'Oro. He finished third at the Liege-Bastogne-Liege and fourth at the Giro d'Italia.

With wins in all of his seasons as a professional, we can only expect
more wins from the young rider. And, as a young rider, he is always
ready to learn. He told Cyclingnews after stage fifteen that "My second place means a lot for the future. I'll come back for winning that stage one day. I can improve a lot."

Good luck to both Fränk Schleck and Damiano Cunego!