Evenepoel returns to the scene of his crash
Nearly fourteen months since suffering the harrowing fall into a ravine on the descent of the Muro di Sormano that could have ended his career, Remco Evenepoel returns to Il Lombardia as a top favourite for victory once more.
Evenepoel was also a major favourite for the win prior to last year’s race, having shown sensational form in the weeks prior, and it’s been a long, arduous journey for him to go from his long period out of racing and rehabilitating following that crash, back to being a top contender.
Thankfully, his form in the last few weeks appears to confirm that his prodigious talent remains undiminished. He won the Coppa Bernocchi one-day race with a trademark solo attack in the rain on Monday, continuing a run of consecutive top-five finishes in all the races he’s competed in since the European Championships last month (the only exception being at the Worlds road race in Flanders, where he instead sacrificed his undeniably strong legs in service of Belgian team-mate Wout van Aert).
Given what happened last edition, riding here could be as much a mental challenge as a physical one, although he won’t return to the descent on which he fell, as this year’s route is significantly different from last year.
Despite the change, this is still a challenging parcours worthy of Il Lombardia, featuring 4,500 meters of elevation gain, and one that will pose all the challenges of endurance and climbing that the race is famous for. Last year’s edition was Evenepoel’s first Monument, and was supposed to be the moment he showed what he could do at the highest level; instead, having not ridden a Monument since then, this year’s edition could instead be his watershed moment.
Alaphilippe looking to show off rainbow stripes in style
Despite the races' close proximity in the calendar, and tendency to suit a similar kind of rider, there have not been many riders to successfully pull-off a World Championships and Il Lombardia double in recent years. You have to go all the way back to 2006 for the last time a rider in the rainbow stripes was triumphant here,
Now, another Deceuninck - Quick-Step rider, Julian Alaphilippe, will attempt to do the same. Although he’s only ridden Il Lombardia three times in his career, it’s a race that should suit him well, and he wasn’t second behind Vincenzo Nibali on his last appearance in 2017. The big question is whether he can carry the sensational form that saw him defend his World title a week and a half ago, or if the huge efforts made in making all those attacks will take its toll? His under-par showing at Milano-Torino on Wednesday suggests the latter might be the case.
The last climb of Bergamo Alta, crested just 3km from the finish and featuring steep gradients, certainly looks tailored made for another of his punchy accelerations, but the race is already likely to have been ignited and in bits long before then, what with the longer, more difficult climbs that precede it. The 9km Passo di Ganda, crested 32km from the finish, looks an ideal place for selections to form, but things could kick off as early as 90km from the finish, when they begin ascending the Dossena climb.
Alaphilippe will form part of a fearsome duo with Remco Evenepoel, alongside other quality teammates like João Almeida (who looked great at Milano-Torino, finishing third), Mauri Vansevenant and Andrea Bagioli, and their strategy looks set to be a hyper-aggressive one. “Together with my team-mate Alaphilippe, I hope to provide a spectacle,” Evenepoel has said, and given how early into the Worlds Alaphilppe was attacking, and how far out Evenepoel made his race-winning move at Coppa Bernocchi, you’d expect that “spectacle” to involve some bold moves.
Evenepoel has a much more harmonious relationship with Alaphilippe and his other trade team-mates than he does with the national Belgian team (who are still bickering about what happened in Flanders almost two weeks on), and together they could make this a race to remember.
Pogačar hungry for more success
It’s testament to Tadej Pogačar’s hunger for success that he’s still riding this deep into the season, having won the yellow jersey almost three months ago.
Often, the rider who wins the Tour de France takes the rest of the season off, feeling the understandable need for physical and mental rest. Not Pogačar. Since defending his title, he’s taken bronze at the Olympics, competed in the European and World Championships, and is this week taking part in the Italian semi-classics that lead up to Il Lombardia.
Having already won Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the sprint, victory on Saturday would see Pogačar become the first rider to win the Tour de France at two Monuments in the same season since Eddy Merckx in 1975. Once you start challenging Eddy Merckx’s statistics, you know you’re on the brink of something special.
He appears to be finding the form to do so, too. He fired a warning shot to all of his rivals with a fearsome ride at Tre Valli Varesine on Tuesday, shocking everyone with an attack over 100km from the finish, and still managing to sprint for third-place despite later suffering a puncture.
He’ll also form part of a talent-filled UAE Team Emirates line-up, which has multiple cards to play — Marc Hirschi is another attacking option, Diego Ulissi could keep his quick sprint finish in reserve, and Davide Formolo could attack in tandem with Pogačar, as he did to finish second at Tre Valli Varesine.
Surrounded by such talent, Pogačar won't be weighed down by the pressure of being the team’s sole leader, and will have a licence to pick his moments to attack— which will surely strike fear into everyone else riding.
A classic for the climbers
As well as the Autumnal slot on the calendar (re-installed after last year’s rearrangements to August) that gives it the nickname ‘Race of the Falling Leaves’, the other thing that makes Il Lombardia distinct from most other Classics is its suitability for climbers.
The difficulty of its parcours is reflected in its list of former winners, who tend to be better known for their climbing skills and Grand Tour pedigree than as Classics riders; recent examples being Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Victorious), Esteban Chaves (BikeExchange) and Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation).
None of the aforementioned appear to have the form to win again, meaning a new Il Lombardia champion is likely to be crowned. Right now, the man most likely is Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), who has been on scintillating form this week, first winning the Giro dell’Emilia on Saturday, then Milano-Torino on Wednesday. We all know how difficult the Slovenian is to stop when in form like this, and with a super-strong Jumbo-Visma team featuring the likes of Jonas Vingegaard, George Bennett and Steven Kruijswijk to back him up, he looks well set to add a second monument to his Liège-Bastogne-Liège victory from last year.
As one of the world’s best climbers, Roglič will have no problem with the quantity of uphill kilometres in Lombardy, but this will pose a stern test for Classics stars like Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and the on-form Benoît Cosnefroy (Ag2r-Citroên), who prefer shorter, sharper efforts than the longs climbs of this race.
Instead, this is a race that suits Britain’s Adam Yates and Canada’s Michael Woods, both of whom have found excellent form with top-five finishes at Giro dell’Emilia and Milano-Torino, while Grand Tour stars who aren’t seen much in classics like Alexander Vlasov (Astana-PremierTech), Mikel Landa, Jack Haig (both Bahrain-Victorious), Nairo Quintana (Arka-Samsic), Rigoberto Urán (EF Education-Nippo) and Simon Yates (BikeExchange) could also be in the mix.
Dan Martin bows out at the scene of one of his great triumphs
Seven years ago at Il Lombardia, Dan Martin took a group of some of this era’s best Classics riders by surprise, launching an attack on the finishing straight while the others prepared to sprint. Their hesitancy was his gain, as the Irishman soloed the final meters to the line to take the victory.
His win the year before at Liège-Bastogne-Liège might be more famous, if only for the memorable image of a fan dressed as a panda running behind him on the finishing climb, but this was every bit as impressive and prestigious, and made him one of only eleven riders in the last decade to have won more than one Monument.
Add to that his exploits in Grand Tours (all of which he has both won stages at and finished in the top overall) and stage races (including overall victories at the Tours of Catalunya and Poland), it’s fair to say that his has been one of the best careers of this generation — a career that will come to an end on Saturday, following Martin’s announcement that he’s retiring from the sport.
Other riders as crash prone as Martin might be remembered more for that than their achievements, but it’s testament to Martin’s success and longevity that the enduring image of him will be of his hunched, gangly frame launching one of his countless attacks on an uphill.
Does he have one more big win in him? His form certainly looked good at Giro dell’Emilia, where he finished sixth, and his failure to post a good result at Milano-Torino was down to a late mechanical and being caught out in the crosswinds rather than bad legs. Some of Martin’s best moments have come when riding as an underdog, so a fairy-tale end to his stellar career isn’t out of the question.
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