They call it the race of the falling leaves, named for the brilliant oranges and reds and yellows that line the route as it winds its way around Lake Como. The falling leaves were always symbolic of the changing of the season, coming after Paris-Tours and providing a much softer conclusion than the season's harsh opening in the cold winter of Belgium. But these years, change of a different sort is in the air. The Giro di Lombardia is now Il Lombardia, and it is moved two weeks earlier on the calendar. Lombardia now precedes Paris-Tours by a week and its status as the last race of the season was usurped by the UCI's mondialization poster child, the Tour of Beijing.
That is not to say Il Lombardia has been marginalized. A large reason for its move two weeks earlier on the calendar was to position it closer to the World Championships, making it a more attractive - and attainable - target for those riders who were peaking for the end of September. Though one of the five "monuments" in the sport, Lombardia risked becoming irrelevant, a contest not of legs but who cared enough to continue to train through the shorter and shorter days of October. Now, closer to the rest of the season, the list of riders seeking glory on the climbs around Lake Como grows longer and longer.
It is almost tradition that the winner of the World Championships lines up in Bergamo to display his new rainbow stripes at least one time before retiring for an early fall hibernation. Sometimes, this is just for show, like when Thor Hushovd took a lap around the lake in 2010. Really, expecting the powerful Norweigan sprinter and cobbles man to make it over the Ghisallo would have been silly. But other times, the winner is cut of the same cloth as the new world champion. In 2006, Paolo Bettini took an emotional victory while in his new white kit, soloing through rain powered on by the thought of his brother's recent death. This year's champion Rui Costa will find the five substantial climbs on the route to his liking, as will Joaquim Rodríguez, Alejandro Valverde, and Vincenzo Nibali. The former will want to dispel the notion of a rainbow curse while the latter three will all be seeking revenge after being out-smarted and overpowered last Sunday in Florence.
Have no doubt, this is a race for the climbers, especially those that can sprint. The first climbs, the longer Valcio di Valcava and shorter Colle Brianza, start to add fatigue to the legs, but they merely serve as a preamble to the beastly Muro di Sormano. Added to the race three years ago, this road climbs steadily until riders take a detour, lopping off the top half of the normal climb to ascend the final 304 meters in a mere 1.9 kilometers at an average gradient of 15.8% with ramps over 25% along the way. Coming some 80 kilometers from the finish, it is too far to attack, but nonetheless where the racing begins. Efforts made here, either to stretch elastic or claw desperately back onto a wheel, will be felt later.
As the race ascends the next climb, we are reminded why Lombardia is one of the Monuments. The chapel at the top of the Madonna del Ghisallo is a shrine to cycling, the most striking reminder that Italy is the spiritual home of our sport. But our racers, they will not have time to stop and pay homage to the patron saint of cycling or all the history that adorns the small chapel and museum's walls. Instead, they will plunge towards the final obstacle, the Vila Vergano.
The Vergano is another awkward climb in the manner of the Sormano. Halfway up its moderate gradients, the parcours takes a sharp turn and the gradients jump upwards. This is where the attacks that will define the race go, despite the shadowboxing that came before. Two kilometers of the 10km climb near the top average over 11%, flattening out ever so briefly before a screaming and technical descent back into Lecco. Last year, Joaquim Rodríguez went on the attack here and held on for victory. It is the sort of climb and descent that Vincenzo Nibali drools at, especially with a forecast of rain for tomorrow. Beyond last year, though, we know little about who else will thrive here. Like Milan - Sanremo, Lombardia is always shuffling its climbs around, seeking the perfect balance between groups and individuals.
In many ways, though, this year's course should elicit the same group of contenders as we saw last weekend. The Vergano may be too much for Philippe Gilbert, who can only just haul his frame over in sight of the likes of pure cimbers like Nibali and Rodriguez. Should a small group approach the finish, Alejandro Valverde is likely to be there... and to have the most powerful sprint. But Dan Martin could surprise him, for he has a surprisingly fast sprint for a climber. Then again, if you ask Chris, Diego Ulissi is a lock to win. Whoever it is, I will be watching (albeit on delay) to watch the leaves fall and one of the most beautiful races on the calendar.