Valverde aims for victory in his new rainbow stripes
This weekend’s Il Lombardia, the fifth and final monument of the season, offers the first chance to see Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) in rainbow stripes at a World Tour race.
Now that the he has at last been crowned world champion, there aren't too many top one-day Classics left for Valverde to conquer. But one race that stand out that he never won is Il Lombardia - in fact, it’s arguably the biggest hole now remaining on his palmarès in terms of prestigious races that are tailored towards his attributes.
It appears the Spaniard is eager to put that right this week. Riders who have just won the Worlds generally tend to take either one of two different paths: either to end the season on the high of winning gold, or to go on and attempt to win Il Lombardia. Valverde is very much in the latter camp, having competed aggressively to finish third at Milano-Torino o Thursday, in anticipation of a challenge for victory in Lombardy on Saturday.
It’s true that no-one has won Il Lombardia in the rainbow stripes since Paolo Bettini in 2006, but you feel that Valverde - a rider who never seems to be off-form and can compete from February to October - is capable of doing so.
Does Nibali have the form to defend his title?
Recent years would dictate that Vincenzo Nibali is the man to beat on Saturday. Not only is the Italian defending champion following his solo breakaway last year, he also won in a similar fashion in 2015, on both occasions using his descending prowess to make a race winning move on the descent of the Civiglio.
That fact that this year’s edition again takes the riders from Bergamo to Como rather than vice versa, and therefore again features the Civiglio in its finale, appears to play into Nibali’s hands.
The big question regarding the Italian’s chances of sealing a third victory in four years is whether he has the form. We pondered the same question prior to both the Vuelta a España and World Championships, and on both occasions Nibali fell well short, but he has since shown some hints of improvement will active rides at both the Giro dell’Emilia and Tre Valli Varesine.
A lot of history is at stake should Nibali rise to the occasion - victory would not only see him enter an elite club of nine riders to have won this race at least three times, but also become the first rider to achieve the Milan-San Remo/Il Lombardia double since Eddy Merckx in 1971, and the first Italian to do so since Fausto Coppi in 1949.
On-form contenders seeking biggest career wins
Languishing behind Valverde at the World Champions were a procession of riders who just missed out on what would have been the biggest wins of each of their careers, and who are instead now hoping to claim that elusive major victory at Il Lombardia.
The silver and bronze medal, for instance, went to Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Michael Woods (EF Education First-Drapac) respectively, and the former will now be hoping to end a run of high-profile runner-up finishes at races like the Tour de France and Liège-Bastogne-Liège with a step up to the top tier of the podium, while the latter seeks to top his late-blooming stage win at the Vuelta with a Monument victory.
The prodigiously talented Gianni Moscon (Sky) finished fifth in Innsbruck and has his eye on what would be a first ever WorldTour-level victory, and will have the tifosi cheer him on as arguably Italy’s best hope for victory.
And Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), who road impressively in a domestique role in Innsbruck, has since demonstrated exceptional form with victory at Milano-Torino and second place at Tre Valli Varesine, and also has a great record at Il Lombardia having previously finished third (2015) and fifth (2017).
All of these riders have the form to compete for victory - the question is whether they have the winning pedigree to take the extra step and evolve from serial near-missers to champions.
Madonna del Ghisallo and Muro di Sormano
Two climbs stand out as spectacles not to be missed at Il Lombardia - Madonna del Ghisallo and Muro di Sormano.
The Madonna del Ghisallo is the landmark most synonymous with the 113-year old race, having first featured in it way back in 1919. It’s not the toughest of challenges, nor does it play too decisive a role in how the race plays out these days, but as a spiritual site the church has become as much a shrine for cycling fans as it is for Christians.
The Muro di Sormano may not boast the same history, having only appeared three times in the 1960s prior to its reintroduction in 2012, but is an equally unmissable thanks to its brutal gradients. So steep is the climb that it was removed from the race altogether from 1963 for being too difficult, and only now in the modern, technologically advanced peloton are its slopes of over 20 per cent deemed rideable.
Both climbs are tackled in quick succession between 70km - 47km from the finish, and mark the point when the racing is likely to really get going.
A tweaked finale
Eschwing its usual annually alteration between finishes in Bergamo and Como, this year’s Il Lombardia will repeat last year’s route finishing in Como, albeit with one minor - but potentially significant - tweak.
The finish line remains at Lungo Lario Trento e Trieste, and the Civiglio retains its place as the crucial penultimate climb, but concerns about possible landslides means that the usual final climb of San Fermo della Battaglia has been replaced by Monte Olimpino.
Averaging five per cent over 1.7km, Monte Olimpino is a significantly easier climb, meaning riders will be incentivised to ride more aggressively on the earlier, tougher climbs if they’re to be confident of getting a gap.
The Civiglio is the obvious place for the favourites to make their moves, whether going up it or, a la Nibali, on its downhill.
But who knows, maybe we’ll even see race-winning moves as early as the Madonna del Ghisallo and Muro di Sormano?
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