With the season drawing to a close, the last major race and final monument of the year is Italy’s ‘Race of The Falling Leaves’ – Il Lombardia. Forming the latter bookend to the year’s classics season, Il Lombardia is the last chance for a rider to add a major victory to his palmarès before the races curtail off into more minor events. A race with a tendency to lend itself to back-to-back winners; Joaquim Rodriguez, Damiano Cunego, Phillipe Gilbert and Paolo Bettini have all one here at least twice, but we may see a new champion after serious alterations to the route. With the World Road Race Championship having slipped through the hands of all of Il Lombardia’s major contenders’ (except for Poland’s wonder kid) many will treat this with equal importance.
With the organisers keen to avoid the race becoming formulaic in its tactics, changes to the terrain should mean we see a totally different race to last year’s edition and possibly a new winner too. Stretching over 256km, Il Lombardia will be as equally testing as any of the other Monuments, with a more difficult run of climbs in this year’s latter stages. However, despite the day being a more gruelling affair overall, the finish has been simplified to fit the talents of the classic specialists who often benefit from an elite bunch kick.
Life gets serious as the race reaches its conclusion.
Expected to drain the legs of the riders during the day are the ascents of Madonna del Ghisallo, Colle Gallo and the day’s major feature of Passo di Ganda – a 9.2km climb which sees its average gradient of 7.3% reach a maximum of 15% as the riders approach the summit. Despite having the composition of a climb intended to decide a race, with over 60km remaining once ascended by the peloton, it is unlikely anyone will win from this point – though many could find their race being lost. Over the following 60km or so of racing, the pack will be forced to navigate technical descents (possibly in the wet) and roads which narrow drastically at times. Stress will be high, so teams will need to focus on keeping their leaders’ well positioned at the front of affairs as the final 3okm come into view. After a 14km stretch of calmer rolling roads ends with 5km remaining, the favourites well be expected to make their move on the race winning climb of Bergamo. Despite having being proceed by climbs more suited to the mountain men, the day’s deciding feature is more akin to that of a big Ardennes finish at 4.9km with an average gradient of 7.9% (12% max) – after the proceeding 250km of racing you will here the legs blow from home. Bergamo is also a tricky challenge thanks to cobbled sections, narrow roads and even a set of citadel gates to navigate – think GP de Wallonie’s fortified finish. Once over the top, those out front will drop like stones through the descents wider streets and find themselves taking the last left hand turn onto a flat 900m stretch to the line.
With the latest course changes taken into account, the range of possible winners has broadened massively thanks to a finish which allows more tactical permutations than recent editions. Many will look to Il Lombardia to compensate for a poor Worlds or even save their entire season. Immediately making Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez, Alejandro Valverde and Philippe Gilbert the big name favourites in the betting market; which when you consider the course seems somewhat irrational. The first 250km might suit ‘The Three Musketeers‘ but realistically Gilbert is the only one truly suited to the finale. The classics specialist should be seen as the favourite for this, having won this race twice before (though upon contrasting terrain) he will fancy his chances for the win if still present late on.
Possibly the most marked man in the peloton on the day, Michal Kwiatkowski could see the final 5km as the perfect opportunity to take his debut in the rainbow bands of the World Champion. With the short and hard climb of Bergamo leading onto a long descent to the finish, Kwiatkowski could slip off the front and replicate the antics of Ponferrada once again. However, the young Pole is still weak when it comes to difficult and prolonged climbing, meaning we might not even see him in the race winning group of leaders.
Another similarly talented youngster who appears to be going from strength to strength this season is Tony Gallopin. The young Frenchman is an interesting outsider for the win after impressing at the Worlds, Wallonie and the Canadian Grand Prixs recently. If able to be remain part of a group which makes it to the home stretch, he does have a powerful sprint on him for a climber but is likely to be heavily fatigued after such a testing day.
Dan Martin is a would be favourite in a year with better form and better luck, though it would be foolish to dismiss him totally on his final chance to rescue his season. Seemingly jinxed this year, he was going well in Ponferrada before more bad luck cut his race short once again. He has form at the one-day classics and has come close to winning Il Lombardia already amongst his solid placings at this final monument.
A man who appears to be going well as of late is Frank Schleck, putting in impressive showings at both GP de Wallonie and Milano – Torino has proven he is still a man to be feared on the right terrain. His key weakness is a lack of tactical nous however, often finding himself in racing winning positions, only to throw them away while decision making.
Bauke Mollema seems to have fallen to the wayside as people select their favourites’ for Il Lombardia, incredible considering his amazing consistency amongst the classics. At the end of a season however, such form can often be an altogether different task to achieve when faced with fatigue. The Dutchman should be able to hold on in the mountains, make it to the final climb and put in a decent sprint if required.
Two more who could benefit from a reduced bunch sprint or breakaway making it to the line are Ben Swift and Jelle Vanendert. A more tactical race would allow them to remain in contention for the win amongst a small group, but it remains unlikely that the pair will be at the forefront to contest the win come kilometre 256.
Even on closer inspection, Il Lombardia appears to be a relatively open affair for the last big race of the year. Not only does the course suit a greater number of riders than usual, but the location of this fixture in the calendar means many will be targeting this more seriously than others would suspect. Ultimately, the day does appear to be tailored made for Philippe Gilbert and his potent finishing abilities. He will face stiff competition from Bauke Mollema, Dan Martin and Michal Kwiatkowski if he manages to stay in contention. Though messrs Valverde, Contador and Rodriguez are all likely to be present at the decisive climb of Burgamo, they do not excel upon such terrain and would be better off with a more challenging conclusion or a summit finish.
1st Gilbert 2nd Martin 3rd Mollema