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Giro di Lombardia: Cycling's Grand Finale

Giro di Lombardia Podium CafeWe come now to the final race of the year. We have descended the Poggio, paid tribute to the Koppenberg, survived le Trouée d’Arenburg and the Mur de Huy, frolicked through the Dolomiti, and partied in the Pyrénées. Voilà, we arrive at the grand finale, the Giro di Lombardia, Le Folgie Morte. The English translation sounds so poetic, the leaves falling from the trees. The Italian speaks of final things, of endings. The dead leaves drop and summer succumbs to winter. But first, there must be one last bike race.

And what a bike race it is. The Giro di Lombardia dates from 1905 and ran uninterrupted through the Great War before missing two editions during World War II. That’s 103 editions, so far. For a good portion of its history, the Italian monument stood as the Fall World Championship, for those were the days before cycling moved the actual World Championship to fall. Six riders have won the Giro di Lombardia while wearing the Rainbow Jersey of World Champion. Paolo Bettini accomplished that feat most recently, by winning the centenary edition in 2006. Unsurprisingly, Fausto Coppi, il campionissimo, holds the record with five victories.

In recent years, the race has fallen into a familiar pattern: a flurry of attacks on the climb to the storied Madonna di Ghisallo chapel, a regrouping, an escape on the Civiglio, and a mad dash to the line off the San Fermo della Bettaglia. This year, the finale takes a different form, though the Ghisallo still holds its position as the beginning of the real Giro di Lombardia. The action is certain to start on the slopes of this climb and a small group should cross under the shadow the chapel at the summit. Usually, this move proves short-lived, a prelude to the action to come.

Following the Ghisallo, the race this year visits a new climb, the Colma di Solmano, which switchbacks steeply and runs 10 kilometers from bottom to top. The descent from the Colma di Solmano is for the madmen, a steep, curvaceous shot into Nesso. A relatively flat stretch of road interrupts the hostilities and may bring the race back together, though the narrow, twisty Italian roads will do the chasers no favors. Then, it’s on to the San Fermo della Bettaglia for the familiar finale: the short, steep climb, followed by the wild descent, and finishing with a flat run-in to the line in Como. (Or, if you prefer, try the dance mix.)

What sort of rider wins the Giro di Lombardia? Paolo Bettini won it twice, Damiano Cunego has won it three times, and Philippe Gilbert has won it once. Cycling's final monument suits the riders who have the speed to make the difference on the short climbs, the acrobatic bike handling to shred the descents, and a strong finishing kick, should a small group reach Como. Both Bettini and Cunego won the race solo in recent editions, but more typically a small group reaches the finish together.

Three-times winner Damiano Cunego has decided not to ride Lombardia this season. The Italian has suffered through a disastrous year with no wins to his credit, a rarity for the rider who counts a junior World Championship, Giro d’Italia victory, and a silver medal in Varese among his successes. Perhaps the famed trainer Aldo Sassi, who also works with Cadel Evans, can find the sourse of Cunego’s défaillance in time for next season.

In Cunego's absence, Philippe Gilbert starts this year’s Giro di Lombardia as the obvious favorite. Gilbert achieved the rare fall double last year by winning both Paris-Tours and the Giro di Lombardia. The Belgian went free with Samuel Sánchez and out-sprinted the Basque rider at the line. The savvy Belgian won the Giro del Piemonte earlier this week, and is plainly on form. Naturally, a whole horde of riders will be watching his wheel in the hope of shutting down - or better yet, joining - Gilbert’s inevitable escape.

Last year’s podium finishers Samuel Sánchez and Alexandr Kolobnev also return. Kolobnev finished fourth at last weekend’s Giro dell’Emilia. Second at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Kolobnev has a knack for near-misses, and the top step of the podium has repeatedly eluded the Russian national champion.

Certainly, the climbers are eyeing the new Colma di Solmano with hope. Riders like Cadel Evans, Vincenzo Nibali, and Michele Scarponi will need a hard race from the earliest ramps of the Madonna di Ghisallo climb. Perhaps the new climb following so closely after the Ghisallo will whittle down the numbers and shift the advantage to the climbers. Evans withdrew early from Piemonte with the goal of saving his legs for Lombardia. The Australian’s highest finish at Lombardia is fourth, and to win, he will need a hard race and a well-timed attack. Evans will have Mauro Santambrogio for support. The young Italian nearly rode Cunego off his wheel last year on the Civiglio, and if Evans is not on a good day, Santambrogio could play his own game.

The climbers will be missing Robert Gesink, who won the Giro dell’Emilia, though the descending finish of Lombardia does not suit the lightweight Gesink nearly as well as the steep ramps of San Luca. Rabobank will look instead to Bauke Mollema, Sebastian Langevelde, Paul Martens (who apparently changed his bike fit this week with rather uncomfortable results), and Mauricio Ardila. Oscar Freire will also start, though the Paris-Tours winner is unlikely to match Gilbert’s double of last year.

Looking beyond the obvious favorites, Dan Martin finished second to Gesink at Giro dell’Emilia and eighth in last year’s Giro di Lombardia. The Irish climber’s best chance of success is to join a move with riders like Cadel Evans or Vincenzo Nibali. Likewise for Quick Step’s Spanish climber Carlos Barredo who won the Clásica San Sebastián last season in a two-up sprint with Roman Kreuziger.

Janez Brajkovic, second to Damiano Cunego in 2008, has ridden an uneven season this year, and it’s impossible to predict which Brajkovic - the fast, on form Brajkovic or the relatively anonymous Brajkovic - will show up to this Giro di Lombardia. On paper, this race suits the RadioShack climber well. Chris Horner also takes the start for RadioShack. Horner’s highest finish at this race is seventh in 2008.

One more from the wildcard file: Joaquim Rodríguez. Surprisingly, Rodríguez has no previous results at Lombardia. Perhaps he has a hankering to change that, though the flat finish makes the Spanish climber a long-shot for the win. Italian Giovanni Visconti has suffered from the burden of expectations, and has rarely shown well at the Lombardia. It’s not easy to be the "next Bettini," as the Italian media dubbed Visconti when he first turned professional.

And so we come at last to the year’s end with this final romp around the roads of Northern Italy. This time around, I will cheer loudest for Cadel Evans, who won my heart with his hardman’s ride into Montalcino in this year’s Giro d’Italia. The one-day wins have proven elusive for the Australian, but on his day, he races with the best.

As the calendar turns over, cycling’s great monuments mark the passing of the seasons. Each year, we begin on the Passo Turchino with the hope of spring and the dream of great victories. And each year, we come at last to Como, our chances exhausted. Still, the wheels turn over, and after the dormant months of winter, we’ll surely pass through the tunnel's darkness and emerge again into the sun of spring.


Want more? Visit the official Giro di Lombardia site.