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The last leaf: Il Lombardia preview

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The flawed beauty of the season’s final monument

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There’s a poetry to the cycling season, and we have the Italians to thank for a lot of that. There are pipe-openers, sure, but the year’s first monument is Milan-San Remo, the race to the sun and the season opening. Doesn’t always work out that way, but the notion of riders leaving the city and pelting towards the Ligurian Coast speaks to the coming of summer. As the year finishes, we come back to Italy, for Italy’s second monument, and the first we’ve seen since Liege way back in April. We wind things up with Il Lombardia, back (approximately) to where we began.

As I pile cliche on cliche, there’s also a battle in cycling, between the tradition and the modern. We hold onto our oldest races, treasure them, but courses change, races are cancelled, the UCI decide the last major race of the year is not in Lombardy, but in Guangxi. The Giro di Lombardia, now Il Lombardia, has changed more than any other monument in an annual search for a parcours to excite. There is a sense, somehow, that it never quite has the impact that it should.

To me, this isn’t a race searching for a parcours, but a race left behind by the modern calendar. The course is great. Every one of the variants they’ve tried has been worthy of a monument. The trouble is precisely with the tradition. The “race of the falling leaves” (or “classic of the dead leaves”, as the website puts it, thereby ruining my poetical theme) makes sense if you want a season to be a drama, with an arc and a meaningful echo. It doesn’t make sense if you want your riders to be safe on descents, to time their peaks for the biggest races, and to ride in the glare of the brightest spotlights, wherever in the world they happen.

With my heart, I love this race. I love the beauty of the hills they ride through, the sense of history, the autumn colours. As an aesthetic, this can’t be beaten. With my head? As a meaningful part of the calendar? Fiddling with the parcours won’t fix it. It would need to move to be contested in the days after Liege and before the Giro, giving us a five-monument swing before the GTs start, giving the best-climbing Ardennes specialists another day to ride at their peak, giving everyone safer roads and better weather for Lombardia. Unless the worlds are on a Lombardy-esque course, it is the only way to ensure the highest possible field in the best possible condition.

Until then, we have ourselves an autumn monument, and we should enjoy it. Poetry, contradiction, drama and all.

The Course

The riders take to the start in Bergamo on Saturday morning, and wind their way through the hills north of Milan and down to a finish by Lake Como.

As is typically the case, there are some pretty bumpy bits of road en route.

Among the many changes over the years has been the inclusion, or not, of the savagely steep Muro di Sormano. This year it is included, and this year it follows the iconic Madonna del Ghisallo. The summit comes after 196km of racing and with 50km to go. Only 1.9kms long, it manages to pack in ramps of 27% and an average of 15.8%. That makes it a Muro to me.

It is a fast descent from the top of Sormano (I’ll be averting my eyes) to the first passage of the line in Como, before two small loops take the riders out and over Civiglo the first time, and with San Fermo della Battaglia, 5.5km from the finish, on the second loop.

What can we expect?

I’m writing this before the preliminaries are finished, with Tre Valli Varesine and Milano-Torino still to come. Startlists aren’t finalised, but current declarations are available. Il Lombardia is, of course, a World Tour race, so all of the WT teams are here, as well as the Italian pro-conti teams you’d expect (Androni, Bardiani, Willier, Nippo) augmented by Direct Energie and Gazprom. It’ll be a crowded start.

What sort of winner can we expect? Depends how far back you look. Since 1995, 12 of 22 winners have been Italian. On the other hand, only one of the last eight has been Italian (Nibali in 2015). That doesn’t get us very far, but the increasing importance of world tour events and the global nature of cycling means that I’d discount any significant “home factor”.

More interestingly, Chaves’ win last year came from a small group, and was the first time the winner had the same time as the runner-up since Gilbert’s first win in 2009. We knew this wasn’t a sprinters’ course, but the length, coupled with the toughness of the hills, means that it is truly one for the climbers, and for those who can attack on slopes and then hold a lead. A quick run-through of the recent winners supports that theory.

What else matters? There aren’t many trends in terms of the teams that are successful (although clearly being in good form and coming from a strong squad is an advantage) and there’s no real pattern in terms of race programmes - Martin and Chaves both won coming off a Vuelta, but Nibali and J-Rod (twice) didn’t. All of the winners had won previously in the season, but again, that doesn’t tell us much - to be a big name riding well in October, you more or less have to have ridden well previously.

Rodriguez, solo, retains his title in 2013
AFP/Getty Images

We can be pretty confident that we’ll see a (doomed) early break, and that the peloton will be reduced in numbers as the day goes along. The weather forecast looks good (currently) which should reduce attrition somewhat, but the Ghisallo/Sormano double will kick the race off in earnest. I imagine there’ll be some regrouping after that, but a decisive attack there could stay clear. I see a smallish group being attacked by the eventual winner on the final climb, and a return to a lone winner.

Ultimately, this all comes down to who has the legs and makes the right attacks. True, and obvious, but not the stuff of insightful previews. The question is, who will it be?

Who are the contenders?

A few teams bring particularly strong credentials to the table. Quick Step are led by former Lombardian winners and in-form veterans Martin and Gilbert, and either could compete. Julian Alaphilippe isn’t a monument winner yet, but the key word there is yet. Any of those three could take this and it wouldn’t be a shock.

Team Sky bring monument winners Poels and Kwaitkowski, as well as Landa in his last big race for Sky, and Rosa, riding on home soil and looking to improve on a disappointing year. Again, any of the four could be in among the leaders and all are capable of winning this. Sky’s record in this race is not stellar (Uran came third in 2012, which I believe is their only podium) but Rosa was second last year.

Mentioning Uran, he is part of a one-two punch with Formolo for Canondale, who won’t be favourites but could easily be in the shake-up. This is a race that could suit the resurgent Columbian. Team Sunweb, meanwhile, can be assumed to be competitive in every significant race of this year, and with Barguil (quietly a very solid one-day rider) and Dumoulin, supported by Oomen, Kelderman et al, they’re set up to be involved.

These boys have been awesome in 2017
Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Astana have historically enjoyed this race, and bring Fuglsang, Aru and Lopez, as powerful a trio as any on the line. We’ll know more about their form after Milano-Torino, but they are set up for this sort of race and their support riders looked impressive in setting Lulu up to win on Sunday. Both Fuglsang and Aru have questions to answer over fitness and strength, but Lopez’s emergence in the Vuelta was encouraging. He won Milano-Torino last year.

Orica will be very disappointed that the defending champ, Chaves, won’t be able to take part after a bad fall in Emilia. Adam Yates is probably their best card but nobody will be pleased to see Albasini if he’s able to stick around over the hills. He’s looked in decent form this autumn and has picked up a top ten here before. Yates is yet to shine in this race but has time on his side and seems to have the skills to go well.

UAE can’t be forgotten, with Costa and Ulissi their cards to play. This is probably too far and too hard for Diego, but Rui likes a tough race and was third here in 2014. Roglic for Lotto-NL, Nibali for Bahrain, and Zakarin for Katusha are the only members of their respective squads that can be considered likely threats, but all are good enough to be involved. Zakarin has always struck me as particularly suited to this race, whilst Nibali has won it previously and if he is fit enough, he’s certainly good enough.

Lotto Soudal bring their usual band of lively spoilers, but it is hard to see the field giving Gallopin or Wellens the rope to win. Roche is in form and heads the BMC squad, but again, the quality of this field is against him. Pozzovivo is AG2R’s best chance but at 34 he’s never been higher than 6th (in 2011) and is hard to see that changing. The rest of the teams are hoping for great legs and a lot of luck.

Who wins?

Miguel Angel Lopez.

This isn’t an easy one to pick, but he’s a great climber with good team support, he’s going well late this season, and I think he’ll be hard to stick with on the climbs. Landa to finish second and Zakarin third.

Your winner? Probably...
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