Race of the unfallen leaves
In a season full of incongruities, Il Lombardia being held in August might just be the most disorientating of all. Unlike most the races held post-lockdown, which were rearranged following postponements from earlier in the season, Il Lombardia has been brought forward from its usual October slot, the traditional season closer instead becoming this year’s second Monument classic.
The so-called ‘Race of the Falling Leaves’ will therefore lack its autumnal character, instead taking place in a Northern Italy that is still green and sunny, with temperatures forecasted to reach 30 degrees.
The circumstances and context might be very different, but the route remains very much the same as we’ve grown used to in recent years. For the fourth consecutive year it will begin in Bergamo and end in Como (an area which, incidentally, was the most severely hit by Covid during the spring), with the key climbs of Madonna del Ghisallo, Colma di Sormano, Civiglio and San Fermo della Battaglia all featuring once again.
The only significant change from last year is that 12km have been cut from the middle of the race, reducing its overall total to 231km — a little shorter than usual, but still long enough to justify its status as one of the toughest races on the calendar.
A long endgame
One of the many great things about Il Lombardia is that you don’t have to wait long for the race to come alive. As riveting as the finale of last week’s Milan-San Remo was, the build-up before it can only be said to have been nail-bitingly tense rather than chock-full of action.
That won’t be the case in Lombardy on Saturday. Here, the endgame begins as early as 75km from the finish, at the foot of the Madonna del Ghisallo. With its church and cycling museum at the summit, it is the spiritual home of the Giro di Lombardia and its most famous landmark, and a real tough effort with gradients exceeding 10 per cent on its lower slopes.
In terms of difficulty though, it pales in comparison to the next climb. Beginning with a steady 5km averaging 6.6 per cent, the Colma di Sormano suddenly ramps up for its final 2km, a mercilessly steep ‘wall’ that barely dips beneath 15%, let alone 10%, that the riders almost have to crawl up.
It’s the most difficult stretch of the whole race, and, in terms of whittling down the field to a select few contenders for victory, the most important. Even with over 50km left to ride after its summit, lose touch here and your race is probably over.
While the crucial initial selections tend to form at Sormano, the decisive attack to win the race has in recent years been made on the Civiglio.
That was the case last year, when Bauke Mollema tried his luck a couple of kilometres from the summit of the climb, and was allowed to go clear by a sizeable group of favourites who underestimated his potential to solo all the way to the finish. A smaller group made it to the foot of the climb in 2018, but the result was the same, with Thibaut Pinot this time being the triumphant lone attacker.
And before that, Vincenzo Nibali used the climb — both its ascent and descent — as a launchpad for his two victories in 2017 and 2015.
As well as being very steep, key to the Civiglio’s appeal is the fact its gradient doesn’t fluctuate much (remaining at around 9-10 per cent throughout), and that, at 4km in length, it takes a long time to climb. It’s not a short, steep wall that’s over in a flash, but a drawn-out, tactical process where the crucial moment could occur anywhere on its slopes.
Although it’s only the penultimate climb of the race, the San Fermo della Battaglia that follows it is both shorter and a lot less steep, meaning that any rider with hopes of winning must commit themselves here. An agonising 17km ride to the finish from the summit awaits, but you’re better off riding solo ahead of the race than desperately trying to catch back up from behind.
All eyes on Remco Evenepoel
Based solely on his performances so far this season, it’s difficult to imagine any result at Il Lombardia other than Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck – Quick-Step) claiming victory. The uniquely talented 20-year old has won all four of the stage races he’s competed in so far this season, often in truly spectacular fashion — none less though than at the Tour of Poland, where he conquered the queen stage with a jaw-dropping 50km solo attack.
But victory at Il Lombardia is far from a foregone conclusion. It must be remembered that the race will be the first ever monument Evenepoel has appeared, and will therefore be longer and harder than any other single day classic he has experienced before. Victory at the Clásica San Sebastián last season might have been a huge breakthrough for the Belgian, but Lombardia is on another level in terms of difficulty, and attracts a more competitive field. For a 20-year-old, even one as talented as, winning on a first attempt is a huge ask.
Still, despite the caveats, Evenepoel still seems like the man to beat, and all eyes will be on him. Could he go for another long-range attack, as at Poland last week and San Sebastián last year (which he won with a 20km solo attack)? The parcours at Lombardy is certainly conducive to early attacks, and what we’ve seen so far indicates that Evenepoel loves to ride with panache. Anything seems to be within the capabilities of this young man.
Fuglsang and Van der Poel lead list of challengers
Due to the clash with the Criterium du Dauphine, many riders who might have been favourites for victory in Lombardy won’t be able to compete, including Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), 2018 winner Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), and last year’s podium finishers Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Egan Bernal (Ineos).
Nevertheless, the start list is still replete with star names gunning for glory. Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) will be one such star, although he hasn’t yet reached his stunning levels of last spring, with third place at Wednesday’s Gran Piemonte his only top ten finish of the season so far. The parcours at Lombardy may also be too difficult for the Dutchman even if he were on top form, and could also scupper the hopes of other riders who perform well in the less challenging classics such as Michael Matthews (Sunweb) and Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates).
Il Lombardia is a Classic for the climbers, so could be Jakob Fuglsang’s chance to shine. The Dane has been in the form of his life since the beginning of 2019, the highlight being victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and should savour the hilly parcours.
Last year’s fifth place finisher Michael Woods (EF Pro Cycling) has the pedigree but lacks the form, while Paris-Nice winner Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) has the form but lacks the pedigree having finished 73rd last year on his one and only appearance. Whereas the climbing legs of a heavier Classics specialist like him will be severely tested in Lombardy, climbers more associated with success at Grand Tours such as Giro d’Italia winner Richard Carapaz (Ineos) and Jumbo-Visma’s George Bennett (who won his first ever one-day race this week at Gran Piemonte) will have a rare chance to go for a classics win.
Trek-Segafredo’s aggressive tactics
Trek-Segafredo head to Il Lombardia with both defending champion Bauke Mollema and the winner of the 2015 and 2017 editions Vincenzo Nibali in their line-up, making them one of the teams to watch this year.
Despite not appearing to be the strongest rider, Bauke Mollema won last year’s edition by taking a chance with a long-range attack, so we can expect the team to adopt a similarly aggressive strategy this year in the hope of a repeat victory.
Aggressive racing is certainly in the DNA of their riders, with most of Nibali’s major victories coming from ambitious moves, and young Italian Giulio Ciccone is earning a reputation for his attacking racing.
And the team’s tactics of late have taken this approach. They were the chief instigators of attacks throughout Milan-San Remo, and rode on the front foot at Gran Piemonte with Nibali attempting to set up Ciccone for an attack on the final climb.
They weren’t successful on either of those occasions, but with such a strong roster featuring so many riders capable of winning, we can expect them to animate the race on Saturday.