Jakob Fuglsang continues to get better with age
There was a time not too long ago when Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) was considered one of cycling’s nearly-men, a rider with considerable talent but one who lacked the something extra required to win the biggest races.
Not anymore. Since turning 34 last year he’s enjoyed the best time of his career, first sealing a dominant display in the 2019 Ardennes Classics week with a career-best victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, then proving his worth as a stage racer by sealing the overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné, and now adding a second monument to his palmarès with Il Lombardia.
Fuglsang had looked strong since the return to racing this month, and was tipped as one of the few riders capable of challenging the overwhelming favourite Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck – Quick-Step), and indeed it was he who stepped up and emerged as the strongest after the Belgian crashed out of the race in such concerning fashion.
The result means Fuglsang becomes one of the select few riders to have completed the Liege-Bastogne-Liege/Il Lombardia double. Despite the similarities of both races, there have been surprisingly few recent winners of both — Dan Martin was the most recent, and Philipe Gilbert the only other active rider. Before them, you have to go back to the era of the 2000s when Italians Paolo Bettini and Michele Bartoli were victorious in both.
Not content with just being one of the best Classics rider around, the 35-year-old will now set his sights on pastures new. He won’t be defending his Liege-Bastogne-Liege title this autumn, but will instead train towards targeting overall victory at the Giro d’Italia. Given how much he’s improved in recent years, who’s to say he can’t now become a Grand Tour winner too?
Remco Evenepoel crash overshadows the race
This year’s Il Lombardia was left with a dark shadow hanging over it after Remco Evenepoel suffered a horrible crash on the descent of the Muro di Sormano.
The 20-year old, who had been tipped as the favourite ahead of the race, was transported to hospital after falling horribly over the roadside and into a ravine, in a conscious state but evidently seriously injured.
Huge things were expected of Evenepoel after the form he’s shown all season, and he appeared to be set up for something special after his Deceuninck – Quick-Step team had split the race to pieces on the Madonna del Ghisallo and Muro di Sormano.
What happened next was a reminder of just how dangerous this sport is, and how even the most talented of riders can go from being on top of the world to serious peril within the blink of an eye. The world of cycling is concerned and sends its best wishes as we await further news.
In another shocking incident, German champion Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) was struck by a vehicle that somehow made its way onto the course. Thankfully, he was able to get back on his bike and hold on to the seventh-place finish he had been soloing towards, but was visibly angry as he made his way to the finish line, and may still have sustained injuries — a worrying sign, ahead of the Tour de France in a few week’s time.
Deceuninck – Quick-Step make for a very hard race
Despite Evenepoel’s premature exit, he and his Deceuninck – Quick-Step team nevertheless managed to shape how the whole race was ridden.
They took it upon themselves to make this a very difficult Il Lombardia, setting a blistering pace early on. The day’s breakaway was swallowed up as early as the Madonna del Ghisallo, with over 70km still to ride, and the peloton was much smaller at this early point in the race than it usually is.
With 37-year-old Dries Devenyns producing a monster turn, it had grown even smaller by the start of Colma di Sormano, with only around 25 riders still surviving, and subsequently blew to pieces on the climb. At the top, Evenepoel, Fuglsang and his Astana teammate Alexandr Vlasov, and the Trek-Segafredo trio of Vincenzo Nibali, Bauke Mollema and Giulio Ciccone was all that was left of the front group.
The intention from Deceuninck – Quick-Step had clearly been to make this as selective a race as possible in the knowledge that Evenepoel was very likely the strongest rider. Though the Belgian was denied the chance to put in that long-awaited attack, their work still had the effect of making the race an attritional survival of the fittest, in which even the supposed tactical advantage held by certain teams by having a numerical advantage over others ultimately meant little.
Trek-Segafredo squander an enviable position
At the foot of the Civiglio, the climb that usually decides the winner of Il Lombardia, Trek-Segafredo had three riders in the leading six-man group. By the top, however, all three had been dropped and went on to finish in the exasperating positions of fourth, fifth and sixth.
Placing so many riders in the top six yet having none on the podium, let alone the top step, is usually a sign of poor tactical decision making, and Trek-Segafredo may wish they had approached the finish differently. Aside from some pressure put on by Nibali on the descent, the trio were mostly content to set a tempo in the build-up to the Civiglio. Perhaps a better strategy would have been for them to have attacked alternatively and forced the others to chase.
Would this have made any difference? On one hand, as discussed above, the race was so attritional that each of Nibali, Mollema and Ciccone may simply have lacked the strength to attack, given that the trio were weaker than all three of their other breakaway companions. Then again, the winner of a Classic is not always necessarily the strongest rider — just take last year’s Lombardia, when Mollema himself won with a speculative attack that was allowed to succeed as the favourites looked at each other.
We’ll never know whether or not a repeat move from Trek-Segafredo would have had the same result this year.
George Bennett and Alexandr Vlasov announce themselves as Classics contenders
George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma) has never been known as a Classics rider, the high mountains and Grand Tours instead being his usual domain. But following on from victory at Gran Piemonte (only the second win of his career following the 2017 Tour of California, and the first that wasn’t an overall victory), he’s now a podium finisher at Monument level after another very impressive display at Il Lombardia.
If he rides anything like this at the Tour de France, Jumbo-Visma will have yet another superb mountain domestique to rely on, and the New Zealander could also be one to watch at the Ardennes Classics this autumn if he can hold his form.
Rounding off the podium was Alexandr Vlasov (Astana), another name we would not have had down as a favourite for Lombardia until recently. The Russian has been one of the breakthrough names of the year, finishing second overall at Tour de La Provence and winning the Mont Ventoux Challenge, but this is the most impressive achievement of the lot.
Aged just 24, he looks an enormous talent and proved today that he can handle the extra distance of a monument.