Thibaut Pinot claims biggest win of his career to date
Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) made the most of his career-best form to win the 2018 Il Lombardia, his most prestigious to date.
The Frenchman's career has been one of considerable ups and downs.
For every spectacular performance, like his breakthrough stage victory as a 22-year old at the 2012 Tour de France, and finishing on the podium two years later, there have been disheartening lows, as in 2013 when he lost all confidence in his descending, and during the first week of the 2015 Tour de France when his promising form was laid to waste by a series of crashes and mechanicals.
This season has been a bit like a microcosm of his career, with the low of capitulating and losing a podium spot at the Giro on the very last day being followed by the glory of two Vuelta a España stage wins, and now a stunning week in the autumnal Italian classics rounded off by the biggest win of them all.
Pinot may never become the Tour de France champion French fans have long hoped for, but today’s result means he will always be a Monument winner, and reinforces the notion that perhaps races on Italian roads and tough one-day Classics are where his true potential lies.
Nibali gives spirited defence of title
For the first time since fracturing his vertebrae at the Tour de France, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) looked like his old self again.
He was the only rider capable of consistently matching Pinot when he made his blistering accelerations on the Muro di Sormano and Civiglio, and only lost contact with him in the final few metres of the latter.
As the finish neared, it seemed as though Nibali would be denied a podium finish despite having spent so much of the day looking so strong out off the front of the race, as a chasing group bore down on him.
But, miraculously - and perhaps aided by superb assistance from his Bahrain-Merida team, who frustrated the rest of the group by having Ion Izagirre and Domenico Pozzovivo mark every move - Nibali somehow managed to slip away again moments after being caught, and held on for second place.
It was a typically exciting performance by the Italian, and proof that he is still the rider he was pre-injury.
The Muro di Sormano shapes the race
Unusually for a one-day Classic, it was the race’s third-to-last climb, the Muro di Sormano, that shaped how the race unfolded.
It was here where Pinot first attacked, taking Nibali with him, and the two crested the top together having fully committed to the move.
Primož Roglič (LottoNL-Jumbo) quickly caught them on the following descent, having instigated the action on the Muro with an attack near the bottom of the climb, and a sensational descent from Egan Bernal (Team Sky) swelled the group to a mouth-wateringly strong quartet.
From that moment it was clear the chasers had a huge task on their hands to bring them back, and indeed they were unable to make any significant inroads, despite a full-hearted turn at the front from EF Education First-Drapac’s Daniel Martinez, and, later, attacks from the likes of Dan Martin (UAE Emirates) and Rigoberto Urán (EF Education First-Drapac).
The Muro shaped the course of the race, but it was the Civiglio where its denouement took place, as first Roglič and then Bernal were dropped, and finally, having worn him down with multiple accelerations, Pinot took one last prolonged look at Nibali, and at last cracked him.
A perfect parcours
For the last few years Il Lombardia has been reliably one of the best races of the season, thanks to a perfectly designed parcours that encourages exciting, attacking racing.
The key lies in the positioning of its climbs. The race’s hardest climb, the Muro di Sormano, is far enough away from the finish to leave plenty of racing left after it is crested, but not too far away for its impact to be nullified.
That the climbs that follow it - the Civiglio and, this year, the Monte Olimpino - are of declining difficulty means that riders are prompted to make their attacks earlier, as we saw with Pinot, Nibali and Roglič on the Muro, while the most picturesque and traditional climb, the Madonna del Ghisallo, is given a worthy, prominent place just before it, close enough to the business end of the race not to be a mere procession.
Other hilly classics that have produced relatively dull races in recent years - most notably Liège-Bastogne-Liège - could learn a thing or two from this route, and recognise the benefits of eschewing overly-difficult climbs too close to the finish line.
Big favourites flops
Much was expected of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) given his recent Worlds triumph and how strong he continued to look at Milano-Torino earlier in the week, but the Spaniard was unusually short of his best form, riding a withdrawn race and being dropped on the Civiglio, before ultimately finishing eleventh in a group behind the main chasers.
His day was however a lot better than another pre-race favourite, Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale). His chances unravelled as early as the Muro di Sormano was he dropped out of the back of the peloton, and he only narrowly missed out on a worse fate when a crash sustained after touching a fan’s errant camera strap was fortunately only benign.
A puncture sustained by Gianni Moscon (Team Sky) was the last we saw of him in the race, while Michael Woods (EF Education First- Drapac) was, like Valverde, dropped on the Civiglio.
His teammate Urán fared better by sprinting to fourth in the leading group of chasers, behind Dylan Teuns (BMC), who lands a first ever monument podium.
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