Classic climbs, Sky vs Quick-Step and Nibali's form
Although the Il Lombardia has perhaps been tinkered with more so than cycling’s other oldest Monuments, there are a few constants that ensure the race’s line to its vast history and tradition remains.
Firstly, there’s the fact that it continues to be held at the end of the season in autumn, ensuring its nickname of ‘race of the falling leaves’ stays relevant.
This helps maintain the race’s clearly identifiable nature, specifically its crisp cold climate and the autumnal hue of the Lombardy landscape.
Secondly, there’s the Madonna del Ghisallo, a climb that has not been used for nearly 100 hundred years having first made an appearance in the 1919 edition.
Featuring a chapel, statues of cycling legends and, more recently, a cycling museum, the summit is something of a mecca for cycling fans, even if it isn’t the most difficult of climbs. Ramps of over nine per cent on its lower slopes and again near the peak are placated by a gentler middle section.
Climbed with over 60km left to ride, it’s too far away from the finish to have a decisive impact as to the final standings, but nonetheless remains a crucial ingredient to the character of the race, and a sight for all cycling fans to relish.
Muro di Sormano
Recent editions of the Il Lombardia have alternated between starts and finishes in Como and Bergamo. This year, it’s the turn of Como to host the finish, which means the deadly Muro di Sormano is back on the menu.
If the Madonna del Ghisallo is likely to be a softening up process, the Muro di Sormano that immediately follows it will be where the race is likely to burst into life.
‘Muro’ translates as ‘wall’, and it’s clear to see why considering just how steep it is – it’s a dramatic landmark which, at its very steepest, ramps up in almost a straight line.
The vital stats indicating an average gradient of over 15 per cent across 2km confirm what the eye suspects – that this is one of the steepest climbs the riders will have to face all season.
San Fermo della Battaglia
The Muro di Sormano might be the hardest climb of the race, but the positioning of the San Fermo della Battaglia ensures that it will be the most important.
Aside from the bold chancers who make earlier moves – perhaps on the Muro di Sormano, or, as Vincenzo Nibali did to in the 2015 edition, on the preceding Civiglio ascent – most of the favourites will be riding with the aim of being as fresh possible for this climb, which peaks at just 5.4km from the finish.
The earlier climbing should ensure that a very select group will make it to the foot of the San Fermo della Battaglia together, but the final, definitive race-winning attack will likely be made here. This was the case in 2012, when Philippe Gilbert dropped Michele Scarponi to win a stormy edition.
Sky vs Quick-Step Floors
Both teams boast such strength in depth that it is difficult to identify a clear leader for each.
Michal Kwiatkowski could be the best candidate for Sky given all the Classics he’s already won this year, but there are also options in Wout Poels (who won the comparable Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2016), the soon to depart Mikel Landa, and Diego Rosa, who has a record of excelling at this race having played a star role in support of Vincenzo Nibali’s victory two years ago, and narrowly finished second last year.
For Quick-Step, it’s a choice between two-time former winner Philippe Gilbert, 2014 victor Dan Martin, or Julian Alaphilippe, who impressed so much with his attack on the last lap of World Championships road race.
Expect to see these two teams controlling the race, and locked in a evenly-matched battle as they use their vast resources to attempt to wear the other out.
If Sky and Quick-Step Floors are the strongest teams in the race, the strongest rider might just be Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida).
Nibali has proven pedigree at this race, having won last time the route went in this direction (in 2015).
As an Italian, he also has added motivation to perform well in front of his adoring home support, and should be in very good shape. Unlike many of the other favourites, he skipped the World Championships with the prioritised intention of peaking for this race.
The Giro dell’Emilia at the weekend seemed to confirm this, and also suggested that Bahrain-Merida are well-prepared – they took responsibility of controlling the race, and set up Giovanni Visconti for victory, while Nibali marked the chasers and finished second to complete a one-two.
Whatever happens, the devotion of the tifosi and his blockbuster style of racing should ensure that all eyes will be directed towards Nibali on Saturday.
A climber’s Classic
Whereas the other Monument defined by its difficult hills, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, has become less selective in recent years, Il Lombardia remains a race where the wheat is comprehensively separated from the chaff.
The climbs and considerable distance (247km) continue to be tough enough to ensure that the race is blown to pieces, to the point where five of the past seven editions have been won by solo attackers.
Tellingly, the start list is full of climbers, specifically the kind of climbers who in most Classics would be beaten by punchier, more explosive riders.
Among those gunning for victory are former podium finishers Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), Italian hopefuls Fabio Aru (Astana) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale), and Giro winners Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
The one to watch for British fans could be Adam Yates (Orica-Scott), whose mixture of diesel engine climbing and punchy attacks ought to make him perfect for this kind of parcours, on the provision that he has picked some late season form.