The curtain call for 2015’s Classics season is heralded once again by The Race of the Falling Leaves, more commonly Il Lombardia. After a second half to the year focused upon grand tours and the World Championships, we see the racing come to a close in 2015 with a particularly gruelling edition of this Italian monument, 245km from Bergamo to Como and some of the hardest climbing the organisers could squeeze into this course.
Similar to Spring’s battles in the Ardennes, little of note occurs during an opening stretch of 170km which serves to warm the riders up and begin building the attrition subtlety. The Colle Gallo does however feature early on as the peloton are tasked with climbing its 7.4km ascent after only 49km have passed. It possesses an average gradient of 6%, but remains relatively consistent right the way to the top and reaches the 10% maximum gradient before the halfway point. The subsequent descent places them back upon level ground for the most part and does not task them with another climb until the simple Colle Brianza once they reach the 108km marker.
Roads continue to roll with ever increasing contrast and begin to hint towards what awaits the riders during the finale of this race. Madonna del Ghisallo will be the first to land a blow upon the favourites, opening their run to home with 72.5km remaining with the initial 3km being contested at a relentless 9%. From here another 5.5km separate the riders from the summit, the middle of which offers a plateau upon which to recover temporarily, before then kicking onwards to the final 1.2km contested at 9.5%. Considering it even touches 14% at one point, should somebody feel strong to make a move here, it might prove difficult to immediately close them down with a sharp acceleration given the terrain.
A fast and technical descent of only 6km will compound their preceding efforts as they almost immediately charge headlong into the base of the infamous Colma di Sormano. A 6.6% average gradient reels the pack up the opening 5km, but all focus will be placed upon the concluding 2km which shall be a truly brutal affair for even the strongest on the day. This final section includes a mind numbing stint of 27% with less than a kilometre to the summit, and overall, the entire run to the top will be against an average(!) of 15.8%. Just shy of 50km shall be left once they complete this ludicrous Ghisallo-Sormano combo and spectators will have now been provided with a clear idea of who has the legs to contest the win by Como.
Once they have made their way to Como the riders shall approach the first of two circuits of the rolling roads which thread their way around the city and utilise the ascent of Civiglio. The climb itself is another punch to the guts in order to ascertain the real contenders once again, though only 4.2km in total, its average gradient of 9.7% grinds its way to the summit and includes ramps of 14%. Another drop will funnel the pack downwards again, once they have reached Civiglio’s peak with just under 17km remaining and begin approaching the finale. This climb would be a perfect launchpad for a race winning move, but given the immense depth of talent present at 2015’s edition and the attritional nature of this particular course, we might see the divisive move come even later. The final chance to make a difference will be placed before the hopefuls only 8km from home, the San Fermo della Battaglia may only be 3.3km long, but its average of 7.2% and maximum of 10% will feel like a herculean obstacle in the wake of the day’s preceding climbs. From 5.3km out it begins tipping downhill and ultimately only levels out 1.5km from the finish line, it was during this part of the race last year that the elite lead group were caught napping by Dan Martin as he attacked and sailed away solo to secure the win.
Vincenzo Nibali is entering this race as the favourite and could finally secure the elusive monument win which so far is absent from his palmares. Not only does the gruelling nature of the day’s route suit Nibali well, but the high possibility of rain combined with the technical descents offers all the ingredients required to bring the Italian to the fore when it matters most. Having missed out on ridding the Vuelta a España due to his disqualification for cheating, he arrives here fresher than many of his rivals and has already demonstrated this fact by winning Tre Valli Varesine last week. Often this race is decided by an elite group sprinting late on for the win, something which would normally be a negative for Nibali, but today’s arduous finale should guarantee him the opportunity to attack and come to the line solo for his debut monument victory.
Alejandro Valverde could prove to be Nibali’s greatest adversary in pursuit of Il Lombardia, possessing an encouraging record at the race but having never stood atop the podium. However, he shares the biggest unappealing factor as many of the contenders here, arriving at the start line off the back of a difficult Vuelta a España. A day of bad weather could actually become a positive for Valverde, the pace subsequently being reduced and taking the sting out of some rivals’ attacks. Like Nibali he will be comfortable on the technical descent and will no doubt be the favourite in a sprint should a small group make it right the way to line.
Rui Costa tends to be forgotten when it comes to these races, despite having won the biggest one day race of the year (2013’s World Championships), but remains a clear danger today. The Portuguese rider was third in last year’s race and certainly has the skill set required to go even better today, but his exact condition is somewhat uncertain. However, the fact he placed 9th at the World Road Race in Richmond is a big hint at what could lay in store, a dangerous rider who might mistakenly be provided with too much room to attack.
Dan Martin is the defending champion and appears here in the colours of Garmin-Cannondale for the final time before moving onto Etixx – Quick Step next season; no doubt a sign that he will wish to sign off with a good performance today. Sadly for the Irishman, his preparation heading into the day has been far from ideal, only making his return a few days ago since the shoulder injury which forced him to abandon the Vuelta a España. Despite this, he did finish 14th and less than a minute down on his comeback at Milano-Turino, so there is evidence to suggest he will at least be competitive to a certain extent. He does not have the effects of a hard grand tour still lingering in his system like others here and certainly fits the mould of a likely winner of Il Lombardia yet again.
Bauke Mollema may emerge as a surprising animator of the race today, the Dutchman has looked to be in strong form as of late and certainly suits the amount of climbing in this addition. His one-day racing credentials are a good support to his claims of a win, though the most positive suggestion of a good showing is his continued form throughout the Tour of Alberta, GP Quebec & Montreal and a great team role during Richmond too. Like Rui Costa mentioned above, he is the sort of rider who could be underestimated and afforded far too much room in order to make a race winning move.
Thibaut Pinot has made this race a huge goal for himself at the end of the season and will ride amongst a FDJ.fr team which offers no real alternative beyond their leader. Given the amount of horrendous climbing in 2015’s route, this is a great chance for Pinot to secure a surprising monument amongst his palmares come the end of the day. If he can mirror the sort of strength we witnessed during the Tour de Suisse earlier in the year, Pinot would be the strongest pure climber present at the race and no doubt ensure everybody is aware of this fact when it matters most.
1st Vincenzo Nibali 2nd Thibaut Pinot 3rd Rui Costa