La Classica delle Foglie Morte

Somehow the "Race of the Falling Leaves" is more lyrical in English than Italian (the dead-leaves classic). But however you want to label it, the Giro di Lombardia is always a grand way to bring down the curtain on the Cycling season. Nothing could top last year's tear-jerker, as Paolo Bettini took vengeance on his terrible fate - the loss of his dear brother - with a blistering late escape and dramatic solo victory. This year is almost certain to be less memorable, but no less of a race.

The race's dual hallmarks are beauty and challenge. Beauty... because it's in Italy, where everything has to be a visual feast. No doubt someone on the Boot someplace is comparing the winding descent of the Civiglio to a woman's figure right now. Still, the route winds through alpine villages, along the shores of Lake Como, and over the Madonna del Ghisallo, a geographic monument to the sport. Challenge... 242 km over some pretty decent climbs: the Porlezza (560m up over 9km); the Balisio (25km of steady climbing); the Ghisallo (another 500+m in 8km); and so on. Put this race in April and it's maybe THE highlight. It's not a monument for nothing.

La Corsa

Saturday's race (n.b.: not Sunday!) varies little from last year, except politically. Removed from the map is Switzerland, site of some of the finer pictures as the riders snake through the narrow streets of Mendrisio... but that's all just first-hour preamble, of little consequence. Instead, the race rolls out of Varese, as part of the year-long buildup to next year's World Championships (sure to be a more joyous event than Stuttgart, which was as fun as a Red Guard criticism session). Or maybe the Varese start is a tribute to Alfredo Binda. Or perhaps other famous Varesini?

Anyway, the only notable change in the course is that they seem to have skipped a small peak on the climb to the Colle di Balisio, shaving about 100 meters off the day's second major ascent. Otherwise, all the usual suspects are involved, including the decisive Ghisallo-Civiglio-San Fermo della Battaglia troika of finishing climbs.

La Storia

Pez is killing this all week, from 1997's let's make a deal edition to 1970's stop-Merckx initiative, to the more venerable Coppi vs. Bobet battles of the 1950s. Surely the race is dripping in more history than this, but I'm afraid it's all either in Italian or bound in books by Abt, Wilcockson and a few others.

Resources

According to this, Eurosport will be showing the race live at 13.15GMT, which is five hours ahead of New York and 8 hours ahead of Seattle. So I'll be live at 7:15am, and hopefully won't miss anything. Cycling.tv has nothing on their schedule (well, they have several months' worth, including spring mini-classics, but no Lombardia), though I seem to recall RCS doing things at the last minute before, so check with them anyway.

The Official race homepage is nearly all in Italian, courtesy of La Gazzetta. Still, it's not empty, which is an improvement. CyclingFever has a startlist up, but it's about half-full. Check back tomorrow maybe.

Strategery

In the three editions to date featuring the Ghisallo-Civiglio-San Fermo, the pack has been seriously reduced over the Madonna del Ghisallo, setting up some semblance of a winning move played out over the last two climbs and their narrow, winding descents. Bettini made it home alone last year, but his win in 2005 was a small bunch sprint, as was Damiano Cunego's in 2004. I'll guess last year was the outlier, and that whatever elite group can get up the Civiglio together can get down it in unison too. So best bets are climbers who can sprint a little. Hence, Bettini, your prohibitive favorite.

The other major qualification for Lombardia is having something left in the tank in October. This is usually a short (if vague) list, and right now undoubtedly includes Davide Rebellin and Frank Schleck. Damiano Cunego may have awakened from his slumber in time too, after taking the GP Beghelli last weekend. Riccardo Ricco and Thomas Dekker were among the other big names in the finale there, with Cunego, Ricco and Rebellin taking minor placings the previous day at the GP Emilia -- won by Schleck. Cadel Evans may be the rider of greatest interest, with the Pro Tour title nearly at his fingertips, but he's been sandbagging all week about his form. Evans needs a sixth place or better to take the year-long title... which is good, because he'll never come around Cunego, Bettini, Dekker, Ricco or Rebellin for the win.

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