Il Lombardia - Tradition And Innovation Side By Side

March signifies the beginning of the classics season as the first great monument, Milan-San Remo, entrances us with its views of Ligurian coastlines bathed by sun. As the weeks roll on, the subsequent monuments of our sport come and all too quickly go. Flanders. Roubaix. And as Liège-Bastogne-Liège fades into the past, our focus shifts to stage races in Switzerland, France, Italy... After the season has fed our appetites seven courses of racing, it slides one morsel more across the table for us, a vintage Italian red to send us on our way with a pleasant taste in our mouths as the fast until February begins. Il Lombardia, the final monument of the classics, winds its way through the autumnal hills surrounding Lake Como and serves as that perfect final taste of the season.

Lombardia is one for savoring as ever more delightful climbs and descents appear on the television as the race progresses. The race begins in Bergamo and flies eastward for 75 flat kilometers before turning westward and twisting and winding over climbs on the way to its finish on the shores of Lake Como in Lecco. Valco di Valcava is the first real climb riders face. Though no selection appears here, it is the beginning of the load that will slowly weight down riders' legs and cull those with poor form from the pack. This climb typifies what sets Lombardia apart from the other monuments with 11.7 kilometers of climbing at an average gradient of 8%. Sprinters need not apply.

The climbs begin to come closer together after the Valcava. Next up is the Colle Brianza, though it is but a 5-6 kilometer speed bump on the way towards the exciting new addition to the race, the Muro di Sormano.

The Sormano summits 82 kilometers from the finish but its bite is much sharper than its relative earliness suggests. The climb is a mere 1.9 kilometers long, but its average gradient is a staggering 15.8% with long sections at 25%. I doubt a single rider does not reach for an extra gear that is not there on this climb. Look for the flurry of late race attacks from not-quite-favorites to start earlier this year on the Sormano instead of the Madonna del Ghisallo.

In a race that, until recently, signaled the end of the racing season, it is appropriate that the parcours pays homage to the patron saint of cyclists by passing in front of the small chapel where she resides. In 1949, Pope Pious XII named the Madonna del Ghisallo the patroness of cycling. Despite numerous changes to its route, Lombardia never fails to visit the Madonna as the finale of the race begins. The climb appears of moderate difficulty only with a length of 8.6 kilometers and gradient of 6.2%, but a flat section two thirds of the way up the climb means most of the climbing is done on gradients upwards of 10%. A flurry of attacks typically emerges on the climb as domestiques attempt to soften up the opponents of their team leaders. A new breakaway usually forms, though staying away for 30 mostly flat kilometers until the final climb is hard work with a concerted chase behind.

The final climb is the Salita di Ello, 3.2 kilometers of serpentine tarmac that rise at an average gradient of only 7.4% but hit a maximum of 15% near the summit. This is where the climbers come out to play. Last year's winner, Oliver Zaugg, attacked here last year and soloed the final 9.5 kilometers to the finish in Lecco.

Climbing like an angel does not alone make a winner, though. The plunge from the town of Villa Vergano to Lecco is full of switchback after switchback. Il Lombardia is known fondly as the race of the falling leaves, but the brilliant red, yellow, and orange leaves that decorate the sides of the hills and mountains around Como have a dark side. They collect on the road as the day wears on, making the descents more treacherous than even two weeks before. And if it rains? Fortune will favor the brave.

For several years, these final descents to Lecco were Paolo Bettini's playground. The former world champion is a daredevil descender and scared many a viewer in his reckless plunges to the finish. His protégé Damiano Cunego is too and used those skills to win in 2004, 2007, and 2008. In 2010, Phillipe Gilbert dispatched of Michele Scarponi on the rain-soaked final descent to win solo. The year before? He escaped with renown descender Samuel Sanchez at the top of the final climb and held off a chasing pack.

Though the climbs have changed, both before and after the Ghisallo, the feel of the route remains the same. The Italians, they like consistency in their routes. Just as Milan-San Remo is a tango between attackers and sprinters, Lombardia remains the same despite its new climbs and decision to place only one climb rather than two between the Ghisallo and the finish. We know exactly what to expect, but that only illuminates the intricacies of the race.

Who will come out and play on Saturday? Il Lombardia has traditionally been held in early October, which meant few riders cared to lengthen their season long enough to arrive in top form. Outside the top four or five contenders, the quality of riders dropped off quickly. This year, though, the race has been moved forwards to the weekend after the World Championships road race in an attempt to draw in more talent that was peaking for worlds. With Alberto Contador on the roster to start, it appears to have worked. If it comes to placing bets, I think I will pick Phillipe Gilbert but hedge with Rigoberto Uran Uran. Did you see Uran win Gran Piemonte today after an attack on the final climb? It was impressive.

Gilbert will be looking resplendent in his debut of his world champion's kit and has two prior wins to his name. And if you saw the way he attacked - in the big ring - on the Cauberg last Sunday, you will not be surprised to watch him do it again on the final climb Saturday. But he will face some stiff competition from purer climbers like Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez who will be reluctant to let the Belgian simply ride away. Vincenzo Nibali will love the descent, but can he get enough separation on the climb? Should the race end with a solo attack or a small group sprint, it is hard to look past Gilbert's ominous form. Who is your pick?

One thing is certain - be it a small sprint or solo escape, the final 20 kilometers will not disappoint.

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