A Monument no doubt, but is the unfathomably-renamed-four-years-ago Il Lombardia a race somewhat below that of the four races that span the months of March and April. I think it's safe to say it probably is. It's usually ranked less in importance than Flèche Wallonne, and while I'm fairly sure it's been ranked on a par with any of the other ones in the past, it has certainly fallen behind them as popularity goes. Is it the ever-changing course that's the issue? Maybe; the race has nothing like Flanders' cobbles as an iconic feature, it's content to stay with the Madonna del Ghisallo, with the church bells ringing from the sanctuary of cycling. Lombardia's certainly no hanger on though. The second oldest of the Monuments, ten whole years older than Flanders, its 109th edition will be on Sunday.
But my job's not to look at the course. It's to puzzle out the eventual champion. The startlist is packed with good riders this year, with fewer than usual riders going on holiday. To my eternal disappointment, I don't get to mock Vincenzo Nibali this time. He got four top five places in the Italian races before the worlds, before putting in a surprisingly low number of doomed attacks - 0 - in Richmond. Upon arriving home he won Tre Valli Varesine, just to prove that such mundane things as jet-lag don't affect him. He is on absolutely super form, able to attack on climbs, and take attacks to the line. And this year's course really suits him, with its steep climb followed by Nibali's favourite, a tricky descent. He's my pick to be the race's first home winner since Cunego's double in 2008. Now I mention it, that's a real drought for Italy in this race as they had won eight in a row, from 2001 to 2008, beforehand. Nibali's team is strong as well, with three in the top 12 in Milano-Torino. Two of them were on the podium.
It must soon get to the stage when previewing a one-day race that Alejandro Valverde's name doesn't even need to be mentioned. I'm fairly sure it could happen, it would just be assumed that he was a favourite even if it was never written down. I don't remember him riding a race without being mentioned in previews, because he is just so versatile. He can climb, he can sprint to a sizably better degree than anyone he's likely to find himself sprinting against and he can descent. A pretty good course for him then. If more than two, and less than twenty riders come to the line together, he's probably going to win.
I get the feeling that Joaquím Rodríguez preferred the 2011, 12 and 13 editions of the Lombardia course. He took one year to get his eye in, then pulled off two solo victories on the course with a
large house climb named Villa Vergaro near the end. When he showed up last year to that climb with cobbles on it, I think he might have been just bit miffed. While those are gone for this year, it's not quite as close to J-Rod territory as before, and I can't see him getting to the line solo. However, a scenario that does stick out in my mind as plausible is him getting to the line with Nibali, and outsprinting him, because Nibali (Okay, I lied. A bit of Nibali mocking). EDIT: After this was written, Rodríguez crashed into a signpost and will not be riding.
Daniel Martin is the defending champion, yet he somehow manages to come into this race as an underdog. The - how shall I put this - attritional stage 8 of the Vuelta sent his GC and stage win hopes out the window with a crash causing a shoulder luxation, after two second places in the Tour, and another in the Vuelta. He's had crashes aplently in the last few years, but precious few wins, and none this year. It was a similar story last year. Crashes put him out of his major objectives, and he had no wins, but saved his season with a big win, despite it being a course that really didn't suit his spindly frame. He won with what is dangerously close to becoming his speciality, attacking with a flat kilometre to go, and winning solo by a second - a move that would have also worked in Liège-Bastogne-Liege had it not been for a slippery road. His comeback race was in Milano-Torino on Thursday, where he managed a respectable 14th.
The Clasica San Sebastian was Adam Yates' first big classic win, after crashing out headed for a podium place the previous year. After winning that, he went on to a good second place in the GP Montreal, and I'd dearly love to tell you how that came about, but the camera boat - I assume it was a boat - didn't work for some reason. Anyway, Yates has a good attack, climbing skills, and good form.
They're my top five picks.
Rafal Majka is on form, after taking second place in Milan-Turin. Ruí Costa finished on the podium last year, and could do something if in a small group at the finish. So could Bauke Mollema and Rigoberto Úran. Tom Dumoulin will be a massive favourite if he can manage to get over the climb in the leading group. Diego Rosa gets a mention courtesy of his win in Milano-Torino. Philippe Gilbert can never be counted out in a hilly race such as this.