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What the Hell Is Happening to Lombardia?

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New-look Falling Leaves Classic unveiled... do we like it?

Lombardia map

The Monuments of Cycling are the subject of lots of debate — should we add a sixth “monument” for this race I really really like (and let’s not talk about its cosplay origins)? How about a seventh, with lots of beer, since it’s in the middle of the others? And anyway, who decides what is a “monument”? And since it is Cycling, there are no answers, only more arguments. Just today, VeloNews posted a piece by veteran journo Andrew Hood wondering aloud whether it might be preferable to always run Paris-Roubaix in October. [Behind a paywall but here’s a link.] Hood is an esteemed presence in Europe so I will forgive him for his heresy (and also it’s not an insane idea, though I’ll pass). But isn’t a Monument a race with a special sense of gravitas, one ingredient of which is tradition?

I am not a traditionalist by nature, not for everything, but Cycling needs its cornerstones probably more than most sports. Would the NFL be fine without its traditions? Well, almost every stadium from the grainy black and white days has been replaced more than once. The forward pass ended up helping, not hurting, the product. Games have been played in countries that don’t tend to speak English, and countries where they speak too much English. Not a problem. Baseball, like cycling, has playing surface dimensions that can vary, and we spent the 1980s and 90s screaming at everyone who thought you could replace a quirky old (rapidly deteriorating) ballpark with a perfectly curved multipurpose stadium. Now the sport has veered back in the other direction, trying a bit too hard to create new quirky traditions, but that’s kinda worked out OK too. And yeah, it’s not like old Tiger Stadium wasn’t falling down.

Tiger Stadium Demolition Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Cycling takes the quirkiness to the ultimate extreme, pitting the athletes against the variable terrain of the quasi-natural world as much as it pits them against each other. The terrain is very much a character in every show, and as we know from watching way too much TV, you don’t want to lightly just kill off and replace key characters from a show. Not to say you can’t do it, but you had better know what you are doing.

I guess they know what they are doing over at RCS, where the course for the Giro di Lombardia has been completely reimagined for this year’s edition. Gone is any hint of the Madonna del Ghisallo mattering, though that isn’t a new change. But also removed is the Muro di Sormano which defined a few recent editions, last year most notoriously as the place where Remco Evenepoel so dangerously crashed on the descent. Gone are the many short, punchy climbs of Lake Como (or gone from the final 3 hours anyway), which while hard still left the door open for a few riders who didn’t fancy themselves grand tour aspirants (hello Philippe Gilbert). In their place is a beast of a course, including 4500 meters of climbing, a number you won’t find matched anywhere else in cycling, outside of the big stage races. I am struggling to find elevation stats but San Sebastian, the other big climbers’ classic in terms of long ascents (8km or so), looks like it has in the vicinity of 3000 meters of uphill, is my guess. This is on another level.

Lombardia profile 2021

The fact that it starts with what appears to be a puny little warmup climb — the aforementioned Ghisallo — should give you some sense of how big the race is going this year. But here are some more precise images to help you along. The Roncola:

Roncola Alta

Huh, just under 10k and about 6km of non-stop 8+%. That should wake up the legs. Next, the Berbenno:

Salite Berbenno

Just a palate cleanser. Good thing too, because...

Zambla Alta

Welp. That’s 11km of pretty steady 6-7% climbing, then a “break” before another 2km punch, some false flats, and two more km at 7%. But the race will be most strongly influenced (probably) by the Passo di Ganda:

Passo di Ganda

Yeah, that’s gonna hurt. Note that it tops out at km 207, with 32 remaining. So it will take guys to a dark place, and then spit them out into the greyishness of having to find the energy for another half hour of racing. Sure, half of that is downhill, but the flats will hurt, as will that little lump near the finish:

Lombardia finish

Just about 1.7km of climbing at just about 8%, with some cobblestones thrown in there for good measure. One thing is for sure, the winner will be someone from the “strongest rider” category. What a beast.

All of these changes are part of the reorientation of the race to a finish in Bergamo, something it had back in the 80s, but over different climbs. This appears to be a whole new way of conducting the final Monument of the Year. No tradition at all, apart from the name and general location. Some of the scenery. The little church with the bikes hanging from the ceiling. That’s about it.

ITALY-CYCLING-GIRO-DI-LOMBARDIA-BLACK AND WHITE Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images

The idea is to change the feel of the race and make it more of a true-climber’s classic. A de-Woutification, if you will. The Venn diagram of potential winners of this race and last weekend’s Paris-Roubaix is just two circles nowhere near each other. Maybe they aren’t even circles. Maybe they are two outlines of middle fingers pointed at each other. That is the difference. The old route not only is not such a diagram, it not only could be won by a guy who wins Paris-Roubaix — it has been won by such a rider, Philippe Gilbert. And Bernard Hinault, Sean Kelly, Moser, Merckx, Coppi... you get the point. I am not so sure that can happen anymore. Maybe this is a question for Sonny Colbrelli to answer. Unless you think we already have his answer in one Lombardia start on the old course... and a DNF.

Anyway, the choice is to be set apart from the other Monuments. Are we for that? About 10-15 years ago I spent a fair amount of time bemoaning the lack of action in Ardennes Week, thanks to the climbyness of both LBL and Amstel, and thanks also to a peloton of climbers who were a bit too cagey (and doped) for most people’s tastes. The doping... has dropped off some, at the very least. But Amstel and LBL both changed their finishes in order to prompt more attacking. The action has been much much better in the last several years compared to a decade ago or more. 2019 Amstel will be in the hall of fame of great classic editions. [Idea for an offseason post!]

So basically, making the races more inclusive is what made the Ardennes Classics return to prominence. In that case I am against making Lombardia exclusive... right? Actually no. First, it’s been a while since the doldrums of the past — can we just call them the Valverde Years? — and I don’t feel great about assuming that the current crop of ambitious climbers would just fall back into the same old patterns. I’m happy to try different ideas out now.

And secondly, there is a pretty good argument that this course won’t play out that way regardless. We shall see soon, but it’s a long way from the Passo di Ganda to the line, and if there are a few fast finishers hanging around the front, you could see attacks on the Ganda, on the descent, maybe even on the flats or at least some tactical nuances. Then you have the short climb on the Via Giovanni Maironi da Ponte (in case you weren’t sure this is Italy), which itself has a descent with a tricky hairpin before flattening out into a classic Via Roma wide-boulevard sprint.

Arrivo Bergamo

That hairpin needs some discussion. It’s not just a >90° turn... it’s a sharp corner into a very narrow gate through the Porta Sant’Agostino, a gate that radiates from the former monastery just behind it, which is now part of the University of Bergamo. I could easily wander off into a walking tour of the area, describing how the exit to the gate is no longer a wooden drawbridge, but let’s focus on what it will take to ride a bike at very high speed through here. The photos below show the entrance, interior and exit to the gate.

Entering the Porta Sant’Agosto
Inside the Gate
Exiting the Porto

I don’t know if this will have a great influence on things, but if a group enters containing one rider who is a significantly more confident bike handler than the others, this would be a nice place to get a gap. And if not... well, it’s a nice reminder of why maybe the race knows what it is doing by moving the finish to Bergamo from the suburbs of Milan.

Adam Yates (L) of Team INEOS Grenadiers, Primoz Roglic (C)... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

Riders of Note

Let’s go team by team here. This is pretty superficial since I haven’t had time to watch since Sunday, but based on the results of the Giro dell’Emilia, Tre Valle Varesine and Milano-Torino, we have lots of riders gearing up for Saturday, and a sense as to who is on form.

Deceunink-Quick Step: The #1 dossard goes to the world champion Alaphilippe, but the real threats are Joao Almeida and maybe Remco Evenepoel. The latter we haven’t seen climb with the climbiest climbers, but he’s definitely on form (solo victory at Coppa Bernocchi) and a recent winner in San Sebastian, so assuming he avoids calamity maybe he can finish what he started last year. Almeida is a solid bet though, he’s coming off second at Emilia and third at M-T.

102nd Coppa Bernocchi 2021
Remco
Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

AG2R Citroen: Benoit Cosnefroy and Aurelien Paret-Peintre both finished in the group just behind the two winners in Varese.

Alpecin Fenix: Not gonna be their day.

Astana: Major players, although the defending winner Fuglsang is out with a collarbone, and is leaving the team anyway, and that was on the old course. Still, you have to keep an eye on Vlasov and Lutsenko here, and maybe LuLu Sanchez?

Bahrain-Victorious: Mikel Landa is their guy, you would think, except he has barely raced since the Vuelta. So then there is Jack Haig, or maybe Gino Mader, but they have barely raced too. So Dylan Teuns? Total wildcard team here.

Bardiani CSF: Not a lot of horses for this courses. Maybe Covili is their guy?

Bora-Hansgrohe: They have been winning a bit of late — two minor ones just today. Buchmann is the big name but the hotter hands are Matteo Fabbro and Felix Großschartner.

Cofidis: Guillaume Martin was in the mix at Varese. With Red Sox-Yankees this week, it’d be cool if French Billy Martin did something.

104th Giro Dell’Emilia 2021 Photo by Dario Belingheri/Getty Images

EF Education-Nippo: Leader is Rigo Uran but with serious support in Sergio Higuita and Neilson Powless. Neither Uran nor Powless have been hot lately, so actually Higuita (6th in Varese) will end up as their guy.

Eolo-Kometa: The beautifully named Lorenzo Fortunato is their guy. His results aren’t great, but hey, it’s better to be lucky than good, right?

Groupama-FDJ: Forever backing Pinot, but David Gaudu was top ten at both Varese and M-T, so he has the form to get in the mix here.

102nd Milano-Torino 2021 Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

INEOS: Adam Yates has spent the last week chasing Roglic around, in vain, but whatever, he is 100% their guy. Fourth in Emilia and second in M-T so he’s headed in the right direction? Just cutting his last placing in half each time?

Intermarche-Wanty: Old friend Taaramae and Lorenzo Rota have both been hanging around the climbing races this week, so they are in with a chance.

Israel Start-Up Nation: Made some waves at Paris-Roubaix, but more to the point, this is the last career race of Dan Martin, who would love a second win in this event. He is going OK for an old guy (6th in Emilia) but he has several on-form teammates in Michael Woods, Ben Hermans and Tre Valle winner Alessandro De Marchi. Maybe even an elite bottle-fetcher in quadruple Tour winner Chris Froome! The Star of David will get some airtime Saturday.

Jumbo Visma: Not to let the air out of the balloon, but Primoz Roglic won both Emilia and M-T, so this might not be such a mystery race after all. Kruijswijk, Oomen and George Bennett among the elite helpers, and watch out for Jonas Vingegaard, who is getting over his post-Tour podium hangover by taking 12th at Emilia.

Primoz Roglic of Team Jumbo - Visma celebrates the victory... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

Lotto Soudal: Not sure we should take anyone seriously but you might see Steff Cras or Andreas Kron get a nice placing. Tim Wellens is their guy if he can turn the switch back on.

Movistar: There is actually a village in or adjacent to Bergamo called Valverde. Horrifying, I know. They’ll have to drop him before reaching the city limits.

Arkea-Samsic: Say what you will about Nairo Quintana at the Tour, but he’s always been good in Italy, winning Emilia years ago plus two Giri. He’s taken a pair of top tens this week so he’s likely to hang around.

Bike Exchange: Well there’s another Yates, the supposedly right one, but neither he nor his teammates have shown much of late. Chaves is a former winner, FWIW.

Team DSM: I guess I should include the Giro di Sicilia in my recent races consideration, although it doesn’t line up with the classics ongoing and drew more of a stage racer’s field. Still, Bardet looked good there. Michael Storer could hang around.

Qhubeka-Nexthash: The forever young professore, Domenico Pozzovivo, has been riding quite nicely lately, I guess.

100th Tre Valli Varesine Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Trek-Segafredo: Vincenzo Nibali last won here in 2017, his second triumph, and he is coming off an almost pre-ordained win in Sicilia, but it’s his last race with Trek before he jumps back to Astana. A better bet is probably Bauke Mollema, on form as usual, and a more recent Lombardia winner (‘19) than the Shark.

Team UAE: Talk about burying the lead, Tadej Pogacar would like to add a cherry on this sundae of a season which includes a Tour de France and Liege triumph. It’ll be Slovenian-on-Slovenian action, the World #1 vs the World #2 and hottest rider. Pogs has plenty of elite help in Brandon McNulty, Diego Ulissi (the sprint threat), very in-form Formolo (2nd in TVV), Hirschi, Majka, Polanc... They are so loaded that Alessandro Covi went top ten in Varese and couldn’t even make the startlist.

Vini Zabu etc.: No.

102nd Milano-Torino 2021 Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images