The Giro di Lombardia (known to some as "il Lombardia") doesn't hide the ball very well. It's a climber's race, but with a big edge to whoever brings the aggression, which is to say it's a Monumental classic. It's unique because it happens at the end of a long, long season, but it manages to be raced like it's a major midseason target.
But most of all, it tends to be won by someone who is not at all a surprise winner. Check the Honor Roll. Over the last two decades, the only two riders I can think of labeling as surprises would be Oliver Zaugg in 2011 and Mirko Celestino in 1999 -- and even the latter might not be such a "surprise" given what sort of shenanigans went on back then. Celestino got in trouble later in his career, so maybe he belongs in the same hopper as his successors Raimondas Rumsas and Danilo DiLuca.
Anyway, setting aside that unwanted detour, what I really meant to say is that the cream tends to rise in Il Lombardia, often more than once. The reigning winner Vincenzo Nibali was a first-time champion but a long-awaited one. Dan Martin had been knocking on the door for years -- including finishing second to Zaugg -- before his win in 2014. Then you get a series of double-winners in Joaquim Rodriguez, Philippe Gilbert, Paolo Bettini and Michele Bartoli, along with treble-victor Damiano Cunego. It's a predictable race. The hardest ones so often are.
But is this the year something different happens? Two factors are at work.
Where are the Champions?
Only Gilbert is among the past multi-winners in atte... no wait! There's been a Damiano Cunego sighting!! OK, I feel better now, but back to my point, you probably won't see anyone add a third win to their already stellar palmares. Gilbert was sixth in Tre Valle Varesine, I'm told (I've been traveling for two weeks, ugh), but otherwise is not entering the race on one of his patented rolls, where he blows the competition away. Thirty-five-year-old Cunego doesn't win much anymore, so expecting him to make a dent on a Monument is pretty much out of the question.
Nibali, recovering from a broken collarbone suffered in Rio, is not attending after making his return to racing earlier this week. Martin and Zaugg are set to renew acquaintances, and the Irishman might make his presence felt, but all bets are off thanks to his efforts at the Tour de France and Olympics, a far deeper dig into his reserves than he'd made in prep for his 2014 Lombardia win. Zaugg's last win was that Lombardia race, and to underscore how far off a cliff his results have fallen since that day, his best effort this year is 11th in a Tour de Wallonie stage.
Oh, and then there's J-Rod. The Spaniard was planning to hang up his bike for good on his wonderful career after the Olympic road race, but apparently Katusha are requiring him to race four more times, in order to fulfill his contract. The first of those was Milano-Torino, where he apparently DNF'd. If Katusha had any respect for the guy they'd let him walk away on his terms -- he's earned that much. But apparently he has to take the start line in Como Saturday. A win would be a storybook event, but I think we can pretty much see the DNF writing on the wall here. So j-Rod will be the third multiple winner on hand, if only for a little while.
Young Talent On the March
Given the void at the top (other than maybe maybe Gilbert and Martin), it's exciting to think about all the possible riders who can dream of making a name, or a bigger name, for themselves on Saturday. There's a lot of them. Let's run through the list. For all of this, my apologies, I've been in no position to watch cycling at all for most of the last three weeks. But I'll cobble together what I can and ask you guys to flesh it out.
Fabio Aru, Astana
Si? Aru comes in with the #1 dossard and definitely the #1 team. There is no Nibali looking over his shoulder, at least not until Aru's next contract is up and he once again, inexplicably, joins a Nibali team. But for once in his career that may never happen, and with Nibs of to Bahrain next season this Astana team is all his. And what a team... Miguel Angel Lopez just won Milano-Torino, an ideal distraction for a Lombardia hopeful to have by his side. Aru looked good in the Giro dell'Emilia, which I still maintain is the best prep for this race (and which I did get to watch eventually), so let's call him primed for something special.
Maaaa... Things happen when a rider passes the 200km mark. For the very strongest, good things happen. For most everyone else, including Aru, it's not so great. Aru was ninth in Lombardia two years ago, after two DNF's. And that's it. Also, as good as he was in Emilia, he wasn't as good as Stevie Chaves.
Stevie Chaves, Orica-Bike Exchange
Si? Oh, this one has legs. Chaves was fantastic in Emilia, after taking third in the Vuelta, and his second in the Giro is not nothing -- the kid likes Italian roads. The rise of Chaves has been one of the biggest stories of the season, thanks in part to his winning smile but also to his relentless climbing
Diego Ulissi, Lampre
Si? Ulissi is easily one of the five most fascinating people in cycling right now. Look no further than the FSA Directeur Sportif, where he is ranked seventh in scoring despite a cost of only 8 points. He's the common denominator on the top two teams at present, as the Colbrelli-led teams like Beberance drop a bit. Oh, and Sonny Colbrelli isn't taking the start at Lombardia because... why again? Not sure, but given his history of taking a cab home from somewhere out on the course, I'm guessing Bardiani just don't like his chances in this race. So that leaves his rival Ulissi from the category of "guys who win a lot but only in Italy on climby courses with fast finishes."
Maaaa... Excited yet? Good, because now you have to accept the fact that Ulissi has never scored a point at Lombardia. His top finish is 28th, along with 74th last year and a DNF early on in his career. Maybe these short-range Italian climb winner guys aren't all that. Maybe we have too many SSSRs in the competition to artificially inflate their worth. Hm...
Rigoberto Uran, Cannondale
Si? By a lot of measures he's a favorite to win. Uran has been third here before, and unlike the past winners he is very distinctly on form. He came in third in both Emilia and Milano-Torino, the former being a sprint loss and the latter more of a strategic one with his teammate Michael Woods up the road. He is experienced, comfortable (relatively at least) with the distance, and primed for a win.
Maaaa... Hm, Uran seems to always be just a step behind fate when it comes to potentially memorable victories. That feels like a phony criticism, as there isn't anything stopping him from getting the next one, and finishing second or third or whatever means he beat pretty much everyone else. Still, it hasn't happened til it happens. He'd be about as satisfying a winner as you could have here.
Dan Martin and Philippe Gilbert, EQS
Si? Well, sure, I guess. As I said above, Martin has had an unusually hard season and there isn't any great indication that he's on Monument-winning form, but we know it's well within his ability. Same for Gilbert, whose achievements in autumn won't be forgotten anytime soon. But this isn't 2009, when he arrived in Milan with the subtlety of a runaway freight train, and was about as stoppable.
Maaaa... Covered already.
Giovanni Visconti, Movistar
Si? Did you know he shares his name with the Archbishop of Milan? Not too shabby. I bet he has ZERO trouble getting restaurant reservations.
Maaaa... I give him the obligatory mention here, since once again he's on good form, having won a stage of the Giro della Toscana and been in the top ten for a couple weeks in Italy. But that's the same story every year, and his last finish in the top thirty at Lombardia was 2011.
Davide Formolo, Cannondale
Si? Or Michael Woods, amirite? The question for Mister Vaughters' School for Peculiar(ly Fast) Children is just how to deploy all this talent. It's a nice problem to have. The conventional wisdom says it's Uran or bust, but while Woods can't be counted on at this much different race from Milano-Torino, Formolo is in his third season at this level and is looking more and more interesting after coming in ninth overall at the Vuelta.
Maaaa... Since the Vuelta he's done one race and not with much distinction, coming in 42nd at Superga. You could say he's been resting for this weekend, and you might be right. But more often the winner of this race comes in as a known quantity.
Jakob Fuglsang, Astana
Si? Shouldn't he have won this race by now? Seems like his cup of tea. But it's never happened. Fourth in 2010 was as close as he got.
Maaaa... Being on Astana means maybe working for Aru, or Rosa, or whoever has the hot hand. If it's the Dane, then sure, OK. But there is no evidence in resent results of such a phenomenon.
Bakelants and Bardet, AG2R
Si? Am I burying the lede here? The AG2R duo are as dynamic as any single rider in this race. Both of them have to rate as serious favorites. Bardet was second in Emilia and ninth in Torino, Bakelants fifth in Emilia and 14th in Gran Piemonte. Both were aggressive in Bologna a week ago. The Belgian moved up to 21st in Lombardia last year, so his candidacy isn't as sparkling as his teammates. But Bardet has two top-20s, is really hitting his prime now, and looked fantastic earlier in the week.
Maaaa... Bakelants doesn't seem targeted for true greatness so much as very-goodness. I'd take that in a heartbeat. But Bardet might be something special. More than anyone else on this list he fits the mold of a guy who plausibly can and should break out and take a victory that rightly propels him to a higher level in the sport. He's young but not painfully so, he's been around this block and the one in Liege enough times already to have a handle on things, and he confirmed himself as one of the sport's best climbers at the Tour. So what's stopping him?
Gianluca Brambilla, EQS
Si? Is Alaphilippe winding down? It can be hard to break though at Etixx, and it'll only get harder with Gilbert coming on board next year. So if Brambilla wants a win, now is the time to grab it.
Maaaa... Well, last year was his first non-DNF... and he got tenth! Don't sleep on the guy, but I'm not seeing anything special in his form or his history.
Petr Vakoc, EQS
Si? Speaking of EQS... Vakoc has taken a couple weeks off prior to his second attempt at Lombardia, and has had a brilliant but surely rather exhausting season. Got anything left in the tank?
Maaaa... As great as he's been, none of his top performances were at the monumental distance or very close. He could be a factor here in a year or two, but probably with more experience and probably not after a Tour-Olympics effort.
Tim Wellens, Lotto-Soudal
Si? Should be a contender here. Fourth two years ago. His style of racing.
Maaaa... Wellens DNF'd at ENECO, feeling off his best form. Not a good way to come into this race.
Wout Poels, Sky
Si? Like Wellens, it's easy to picture his ability translating and he was 12th last year. Comes in with Mikel Landa as co-captains!
Maaaa... Like Wellens, he's not exactly on a roll.
I could go on. Lombardia occasionally has some riders from the classics realm on hand, but the backloaded coursemakes me think this one won't do much for anyone besides the straight-up climber guys. But if you want to add a few more names to this list, by all means do.
Pick to win
Bardet. I feel it. A frenchman hasn't won here since 1997 (JaJa) and it's time to reverse that curse!