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It is no wonder that the rider who stands out as the main winner favouirte is the one that excelled most in Florence last Sunday. Joaquim Rodriguez came agonizingly close to the rainbow jersey but lost out due to a tactical mistake by compa...

Photo: Sirotti


06.10.2013 @ 13:35 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The end of the cycling season is drawing closer but one of the most prestigious classics is still up for grabs. Being one of only five cycling monuments, Il Lombardia is a highly coveted race with a deep history and traditionally signals the end of the cycling year. A very hilly course makes it the toughest of the monuments and its resemblance to the world championships circuit has attracted a formidable line-up that turns this year's start list into one of the strongest in recent years with the race shaping up as a perfect Worlds revenge match.


At this time of the year, it is usually hard for riders to stay motivated and most of the big names are mostly longing for a break at the end of what has been a long, testing season. However, the biggest climbers have one incentive to keep going all the way to the end: the chance to add Il Lombardia to their palmares.


The Italian race is joined by Milan-Sanremo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege on the list of cycling's 5 monuments - the five most prestigious one-day races - and so a win on the shores of Lake Como is a career-defining moment. Unlike its fellow monuments which are all spring races, Il Lombardia is held in the autumn. This is probably the main reason for the fact that the race is usually regarded as the least prestigious of the biggest races as it is held at a time when fewer riders are in peak condition and when the public interest in cycling is in decline.


While the race may be a little less coveted than it's fellow monuments, it is the one that makes the climbers dream. Alongside Liege-Bastogne-Liege, it is the only monument that the stage race specialists and climbers can realistically target and with longer ascents than in Liege, it suits the real mountain goats better than the Belgian classic. This fact is reflected in the winners list which is loaded with Ardennes specialists and strong climbers.


While races like Sanremo, Roubaix and Liege are bound by their names and history to follow certain routes, Il Lombardia is much more diverse. Like Flanders, it is a tour through a certain region and this creates plenty of room for variation of the courses. The start and finishing cities and the courses have all varied a lot during the years and the race still hasn't any kind of fixed format. The only real signature symbols of the race are the Como lake and the Madonna del Ghisallo climb. The steep ascent leads to the small church and a museum containing both religious and cycling objects and is one of the landmark climbs in professional cycling. While the climb is usually located too far from the finish to be the scene of the decisive attack, it's toughness makes it a crucial place in any edition of the Lombardy race.


The race was first held in 1905 when it was known as Milan-Milan before being named Giro di Lombardia two years later. Since  then the race has been held every year with 1943 and 1944 being the only exceptions. Until 1960, it started and finished in Milan but in 1961 the finish was moved closer to the hills in Como. Since then it has finished in Milan, Monza, Bergamo and Como before the finish was moved to its current site in Lecco for the 2011 edition. The race has mostly started in Milan but has had several exceptions. Last year the race started in Bergamo for the first time and will do so again this year.


The race has been won by most of the biggest names in cycling with Fausto Coppi holding the record with 5 wins. Surprisingly, Eddy Merckx has only triumphed twice and Sean Kelly and Henri Pelissier are the only non-Italian riders with three wins on their palmares. In recent years, the race has been dominated by Damiano Cunego, Michele Bartoli, Paolo Bettini and Philippe Gilbert who have all won the race at least twice with the former rider being the only of them with three wins.


Due to its autumn date, the race is known as the "race of the falling leaves" and is the crown jewel of the many Italian autumn classics that are held during the month of October. With a tough course and many riders being fatigued, it is often characterized by many withdrawals and often produces surprise results. At this time of the year, it is more about freshness than anything else.


Until last year, the race was the final big European race of the season and many riders found it difficult to keep going from the world championships until Il Lombardia. To attract bigger names and create synergy with the Worlds, the UCI restructured the calendar by moving the Italian classic to the weekend just after the global contest and postponing Paris-Tours to Il Lombardia's usual weekend. The shorter time gap should allow more riders to stay fresh and so add prestige to one of cycling's most important races. It may no longer signal the real end of the season  but the start list has certainly been boosted by the move. Until this year, the race has been held on a Saturday but for the first time, this year's edition will take place on a Sunday.


With the world championships taking place in Italy on a hilly course, there has been a real synergy between the two races for this year's edition. The two races appeal to the same type of riders and it is no wonder that most of the Worlds protagonists will stay in Italy for the final monument of the season. New world champion Rui Costa will ride his first race in the rainbow jersey and he will be challenged by Vincenzo Nibali, Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez who were his rivals at the very end of the Worlds race. It shapes up to be a true revenge match.


Last year Rodriguez finally got the monument win that had so far eluded him when he escaped from a select lead group on the final Villa Vergana climb. The race was held in torrential rain and the TV producers were unable to provide live images from the final climb. Rodriguez emerged from the horrendous conditions to take a solo win in Lecco while Samuel Sanchez beat Rigoberto Uran in the sprint for 2nd. Rodriguez will be back to defend his title and make up for his Worlds disappointment and he will once again be challenged by Uran who is here to make up for his crash in Florence. On the other hand, Sanchez will be absent, the Spaniard having been forced to put an end to his season due to a crash in last Sunday's race.


The course

In 2011 the finish was moved from Como to Lecco and last year the start was moved from Milan to Bergamo. Organizers RCS Sports designed a hilly 251km course between those cities with the Como lake and the Madonna di Ghisallo climb once again being the main features. RCS has decided to make use of a slightly shortened 242km course for this year's race but the main obstacles remain the same. This means the short Villa Vergana climb will once again be the decider before the final descent to the finish in Lecco. It also means that the brutally steep Muro di Sormano with its 15,8% average gradient and 27% pitches will be back for the second consecutive year and the combination of that climb, Madonna del Ghisallo and Villa Vergana will make for a very tough edition of the race.


From the start in Bergamo, the riders make a small loop in the area southeast of the city, and the opening part of the race is completely flat. It will only serve the purpose of accumulating fatigue and creating the early breakaway. The climbing kicks off after 70,9km when the riders make a right-hand turn into the hills to tackle one lap of a circuit that sends them up the Valico di Valcava climb (11,65km, 8,0%, max.  17%). After a gentle start, the gradient is rather stable at 5,5-8,5% for a long time until a steeper 4km section with an average gradient of 11,6% makes things a bit tougher. The final 1,15km has a gradient of 7,6%. From the top 160,4km remain and the climb will only be used to tire out the riders' legs.


The climb is followed by a technical descent and 17km of mostly flat valley roads before it is time for the next climb of the day. The Colle Brianza interrupts the rhythm on the otherwise flat run from the Valcava climb to the Como lake but the climb is no major difficulty and will have little impact on the race.


That can't be said of the next challenge, Colma di Sormano. Instead of following the main road through Erba to reach the shores of the Como lake in the city of Como, the riders will traverse the hilly area just south of the lake to reach its shores. The climb may be split into two parts. The first 5,1km are manageable with a rather constant gradient of a 6,6% average. From there, all hell breaks loose. The final 1,92km is known as the Muro di Sormano and has an average gradient of 15,8%. From km 1 to km 1,5 the gradient is even a massive 19% and has a steep 27% section but the climb levels out a bit near the top where the gradient is "only" 14,5%. The climb was back last year after several years of absence and the peloton splintered to pieces on its brutal slopes. With its top being located 82,1km from the finish and plenty of flat roads still remaining, it is, however, not a place to launch a decisive attack but more a scene of a general selection. While some regrouping will take place on the descent, many riders will lose their winning chances at this point of the race.


The descent leads to the shores of lake and the riders will now travel along the water on flat roads for 13km. At the 187,4km mark, they turn right and head back into the hills by hitting the lower slopes of the landmark climb, Madonna del Ghisallo (8,58km, 6,2%, max 14%). The average gradient is slightly deceptive as the first 3,55km are far tougher with a rather constant gradient of around 9%. That section is followed by 3km of almost flat roads that are either slightly descending or ascending and lead to the final 2km stretch which has a 9,5% average gradient.


From the top 46km still remain and most of those are either descending or flat. Hence, it is probably too soon to launch a decisive move at this point and like the Sormano, the climb is likely to mainly play a role as a scene of selection. When the finish in Lecco debuted two years ago, Vincenzo Nibali defied expectations by launching a solo attack on Ghisallo and the Italian built up a big gap that seemed to be enough to give him the win. However, he ran out of power on the flat section between the final two climbs and a small group decided the race on the final climb. Last year there was no big attack on the Ghisallo and like in 2011, it all came down to the final climb for the few riders that remained in contention.


That is likely to be the case again this year. The riders take the long, gradual descent that leads back to the shores of the lake and travel along those for a little while. Instead of continuing all the way to Lecco, they turn right to head up the Villa Vergana (3,28km, 7,4%, max. 15%). During the first 2km, the climb is easy with a gradient of 5-6% but the next kilometre is brutal. It has an average gradient of 11,7% before leveling out a bit during the final 280m where the gradient is only 5,7%. Villa Vergana is not very difficult in itself but at the end of a 242km race, it is a real legbreaker. In 2011, Oliver Zaugg escaped on his own to take the win and in 2012, Rodriguez repeated the performance. In both years, the lone escapees were chased by several smaller groups that were created on the climb and a small group sprinted for the minor podium places.


Once again the 9,4km from the top of the climb are expected to be the scene of a hectic pursuit between several different groups. They lead the peloton back down to the lake and the city of Lecco with the descent going on all the way to the 2,8km to go mark. From there, the roads are flat. Just after the flamme rouge, the riders reach the lake where they turn right in a roundabout. From there it's straight until the 300m to go mark where the riders take a sharp left-hand turn which leads into a sweeping right-hand turn onto the finishing straight. If more riders arrive at the finish together, positioning ahead of these two final turns will be crucial in determining the winner of the 2013 Il Lombardia.


The weather

Il Lombardia will not only be a revenge match when it comes to the route and the list of starters, the riders will also be faced with the same horrendous weather conditions as they did in Florence one week ago and in Lombardy last year. At the start in Bergamo, the riders will be greeted by cloudy, dry conditions and a temperature around the 13-degree mark. It will reach its maximum at around 15 degrees before declining a bit towards the end of the race. It will of course be cooler on the top of the climbs. At around 14.00 CEST, rain will start to fall and it will keep pouring down for the rest of the race, making the descents treacherous and the race one of attrition.


The only slight consolation is that there will be almost no wind with a very light breeze blowing from different directions.


The favourites

With the race set to be decided on the short Villa Vergana climb, the winner is likely to be a punchy rider who can handle the long distance and the substantial amount of climbing throughout the day while still keeping something in reserve for one lethal acceleration up the final ascent. Strong descending skills are of similar importance as any ground gained on Villa Vergana can easily be lost on the wet, treacherous descent down to the finish in Lecco.


With most of the Worlds contenders and a host of the best climbers all ready to tackle the race while in good condition, the race is set to be fiercely contested and there is no lack of favourites. It is, however, no wonder that the rider who stands out as the main winner candidate is the one that excelled most in Florence last Sunday. Joaquim Rodriguez came agonizingly close to the rainbow jersey but lost out due to a tactical mistake by compatriot Alejandro Valverde. That doesn't change the fact that Rodriguez battled with Vincenzo Nibali for the honour of being the strongest climber in the race with the duo dropping their rivals the final time up the Fiesole.


Rodriguez appeared to be fatigued when he started the Vuelta but surprisingly, he got better and better as the race went on. That upwards trajectory has continued after he arrived in Italy and nothing suggests that he should pay the price for a long and intense season in the race that could both give him his second monument win and a third overall WordTour victory. He rode Milan-Turin on Wednesday where he took it easy and let Daniel Moreno chase his own success. His explosive nature makes him perfectly suited to Villa Vergana where he can ride away from his rivals by virtue of his powerful punch and he is a strong descender who can keep the peloton at bay on the downhill section. His main weakness is his lack of punch in a flat sprint like tomorrow's as there are certainly faster riders among the favourites and to be guaranteed of victory, he has to arrive at the finish line alone. With his current condition, that could, however, very well be the end scenario.


His main challenger is likely to be Vincenzo Nibali who delivered a heroic performance on Sunday when he came back from a crash to lighten up the finale. Nobody knows what may have happened had the Italian not hit the deck  as he still had enough in reserve to stay with Rodriguez on the Fiesole and close the gap to the Spaniard later in the race. The world championships road race was always Nibali's main target in the second half of the season and no one doubts that he is currently in peak condition.


On paper, an explosive finale on Villa Vergana does not suited the Giro champion very well but Nibali has repeatedly proved that he is a splendid one-day racer at the end of long, hard races. He got close to winning Il Lombardia in 2011 and last year, his fierce acceleration on the even shorter Cote de la Roche-aux-Faucons would have given him the win in Liege-Bastogne-Liege had he not faded badly inside the final few kilometres. That ability to accelerate on steep sections at the end of long races will come in handy tomorrow when the bad weather will be a further asset for Nibali and his excellent descending skills. His main weakness is his lack of sprint and he has to arrive at the finish on his own to take the win. However, Nibali is so strong right now that a maiden big one-day win is certainly within his grasp.


While Nibali and Rodriguez have to ride aggressively to win the race, Alejandro Valverde can stay a bit more conservative. Knowing that he is the fastest rider among the climbers, he can be content with following wheels and beating his rivals in the sprint. Like Rodriguez, he has had a very long season but nothing suggests that he is left fatigued by his heavy racing burden. He was only slightly below the level of Nibali and Rodriguez at the world championships and could maybe have won the race, had he been tactically more astute.


Unlike Rodriguez, he didn't keep anything in reserve on Wednesday where he rode aggressively in Milan-Turin but came up short to finish 6th. There is little doubt that his climbing is not at the level of Rodriguez and Nibali but he is not too far behind. He is a strong descender who handles rainy conditions well and is part of a strong team that also boasts world champion Rui Costa and Nairo Quintana. That kind of firepower may be what brings Valverde back in contention should he get dropped on the final climb. If he is there at the finish, he will be virtually unbeatable in the sprint.


The rider that may beat Valverde in a sprint finish, is Peter Sagan. The Slovakian has never raced in Lombardy before as he has often been a bit shy of condition towards the end of the season and usually describes the hilly classics as too hard for him. However, this year things are different as the Cannondale rider has meticulously prepared his world championships campaign. He showed great condition in Canada where he was by far the strongest rider in the GP Montreal but the climbing burden in Florence became a bit too much for the Slovakian who was unable to stay with Rodriguez, Nibali, Valverde, Rigoberto Uran and Costa. He joined the main chase group and convincingly won the sprint for 6th.


The result may not have been what he had hoped for but marked a significant step forward for the Cannondale leader. Earlier in his career he would have struggled more with both the distance and the many climbs and so it was a massive improvement for him to get so close to the win. Tomorrow, his main challenge will once again be the long distance and the long climbs but if he gets to the bottom of Villa Vergana in a relatively fresh state, he will be difficult to beat. That short climb with its steep ramp suits him perfectly and he will be hard to drop. Furthermore, he can probably allow himself to lose a bit of ground on the uphill as he is the best descender of the entire peloton and certainly the fastest sprinter among the potential race winners. One may doubt whether he has managed to stay focused during the past week as a lack of motivation has often been hampering him at this time of the year but good condition cannot disappear in a matter of 7 days. It will be a good idea for his rivals to try to get rid of him on the long climbs earlier in the race as he will be extremely dangerous on the final ascent.


Last week we marked out Rui Costa out as an outsider for the rainbow jersey and the Portuguese promptly delivered on his promise. Despite being the weakest climber in the lead group, he dug deep to stay with the best on the Via Salvati and rode a tactically perfect race to edge out his rivals in the finale. The finish in Lombardy with a short climb, a descent and a flat finish suits him perfectly and he cannot be underestimated in this kind of finale. He is unlikely to ride away from his rivals on Villa Vergana but he may benefit from his strong Movistar squad. With most riders fearing Valverde's sprint, the team may send Costa up the road in the finale and his fast finish could land him another big win. The question is whether his many post-Worlds commitments have taken too much out of him ahead of the one of the hardest one-day races of the year.


It was heart-breaking to see Rigoberto Uran crash out of Worlds contention at a time when he had made it into the 5-rider group that went on to contest the win. The Colombian didn't suffer any serious injuries and is ready to make amends in Lombardy tomorrow. Having twice finished on the podium - most recently when he was 3rd one year ago - he is well-suited to the hilly course in Italy. He is an explosive climber with strong descending skills and a very fast sprint and his riding in Florence suggests that he has come out of the Vuelta in good condition. He is part of a strong Sky team that also boasts the likes of Chris Froome and Sergio Henao and the squad has a number of tactical cards to play. If Uran can find back his Worlds legs, he may get over the final climb in the lead group and then he will be hard to beat in a sprint.


Michele Scarponi sacrificed himself for Nibali in the Worlds road race but did a splendid job to set up the final attack from his compatriot. Having won the GP Costa degli Etruschi one week prior to the race in Florence, the Lampre leader has evidently come out of the Vuelta in good condition and may have made the final selection in the battle for the rainbow jersey had he got the chance to ride for himself. He will get that opportunity tomorrow and he should feature prominently in the finale. While he has struggled on the longer climbs all year, he has generally been riding really well on the shorter climbs in one-day races. He has all the skills to shine in Il Lombardia where he has finished 2nd in the past but is hampered by his lack of a fast sprint. If he makes it into the lead group on Villa Vergana, he may, however, benefit from the tactical battle to come away with the win.


Philippe Gilbert failed to defend his rainbow jersey and now hopes to make amends in Lombardy which he has already won twice. However, those wins came at the end of the 2009 and 2010 seasons where he was generally riding much stronger than he has been this season. On paper, the early climbs are a little bit too long for the Belgian who may be left fatigued for the Villa Vergana where it will be difficult to follow the best climbers. On the other hand, that final ascent suits him well and if he is not too far behind at the top, he will be a danger man. He is a good descender and one of the fastest finishers among the race favourites which makes him a dangerous if he stays close to the front on the climb. He would love to save an otherwise disappointing season with a big monument win.


Diego Ulissi was marked out as a dangerous dark horse for the world championships but crashed twice and never featured at the pointy end of the race. He showed his good condition on Wednesday when he won Milan-Turin. With his fast sprint, none of his rivals would wish to bring him to the finish line and he is obviously climbing really well at the moment. With Scarponi, he forms a dangerous Lampre duo that has a number of tactical opportunities if they are both well-placed after the final climb. In the past, he has, however, struggled in bad weather and on long distances and he has to overcome those difficulties to feature prominently in the finale.


Finally, Chris Froome deserves a mention. The Tour de France winner can never be ruled out despite his poor showing at the world championships. He claimed to be in good condition for that race but suffered in the cold weather. His good form cannot have disappeared and if he feels well, he will be dangerous in the finale. The final climb may be a bit too explosive for him but his level as a climber is at such that he may be in the mix. Furthermore, he has a rather fast sprint. Unfortunately, he will once again have to deal with bad weather and wet descents and that may again end up being his undoing.


***** Joaquim Rodriguez

**** Vincenzo Nibali, Alejandro Valverde

*** Peter Sagan, Rui Costa, Rigoberto Uran

** Michele Scarponi, Philippe Gilbert, Diego Ulissi, Chris Froome

* Daniel Moreno, Domenico Pozzovivo, Rafal Majka, Simon Clarke, Nairo Quintana



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