Il Lombardia: The season’s lost treasure

It may not have the bone chattering cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, the early season fervour and unpredictable weather of Milano-SanRemo, or the iconic bergs of Tour of Flanders, but Il Lombardia should hold a special place in everyone’s heart.

The last major event of the pro cycling year, the Italian ‘race of the falling leaves’ concludes the set of five ‘monuments’, after Milano SanRemo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.  

Despite Il Lombardia’s place in the venerated collection of monuments, and the fact it’s one most beautiful, dramatic and poignant races of the year, it seems to be neglected in our conscience. Yet the endless beauty of the parcours, the always-dramatic finale, and the sense of poignancy infusing the race should make it at the top of your watch list.

The action of the 243km race plays out in an 80km finale of punchy climbs, twisting descents and lakeside balcony roadsaround Como. The action in this final third builds to a crescendo just as beautifully as the Cipressa and Pogio build tension in SanRemo, or the final mauling by the Paterbergleaves us on the edge of our seat as the final few haul themselves towards Flanders’ finish line in Oudenaarde.

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The route alters slightly every year, though this denouement is rarely changed. You know it’s time to get a beer from the fridge and settle on the sofa whew the peloton approach the climb to the Madonna del Ghisallo. This ascent marks the gateway to the action, and is the symbolic centre of the racethanks to the Catholic shrine to cycling perched atop of it.

The Ghisallo is merely a softener, not tough enough to worry many. It’s the climb directly afterward where the peloton begins to break down however. The Muro di Sormono may be only 2km long, but its average grade of 16% is more than enough for many season-weary riders.

The following 20km of stunning roads around Lake Como typically see a sizable, but heavily-diminished group regathering its bullets ahead of the final double-header of climbs, the Civiglo and San Ferma della Battalia. This pair ofshort ascents favour the daring, with steep slopes preceding twisting, technical descents and a madcap two kilometer dash to the finish.  

This final succession of climbs that define Lombardia are hard enough to be selective but not so difficult that the race is an attritional deathmarch of last-man-standing. There will be a race at the end of Lombardia, not a crawl to the line by racers on their knees.

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A look at recent winners says a lot about the course. Philippe Gilbert, Dan Martin, and Vincenzo Nibali are among those to have crossed the line first, a signal that attacking verve and snappy climbing are required to take success. However, withthe more diesel-engine style of Thibaut Pinot and Esteban Chaves also providing recent wins, you can see there’s a wide profile of racers can succeed. 

Like Liege-Bastogne-Liege, it’s certainly a ‘climbers’ monument’, though one that leaves its doors open to a wild collection of puncheurs and grand tour stars.

Despite all this, why doesn’t the Italian monument meet the hype and fervour of Paris Roubaix or Tour of Flanders? The answer probably lies in its October start slot. 

By its mid-October start slot, the Vuelta a Espana feels a distant memory, and the World Championships is already becoming hazy in the mind. There’s a sense that the fight for the world title is a natural full stop on the season; typicallyepic, with riders fighting for motives beyond sponsor exposure, with added hype and fervour thanks to the ever-changing location. 

The ‘race of the falling leaves’ has a feel of being butted on to the end of the racing year as a clumsy afterthought, tacked on after the worlds. But monuments are monuments, and they’re not to be messed with. Lombardia has been an autumn race ever since its first incarnation in November 1905, and to change that would be a cycling sacrilege that would entirely change the feel of event.

However, the sense of Il Lombardia being an afterthought, a dwindling end to the season, somehow gives the race romance. The leaves fall from the trees as the end falls on the season, and the race around the serene lake and spectacularclimbs feels a fitting elegy. 

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Riders that missed their chance at the worlds are out for revenge, Tour de France competitors are rested for one final test, and Vuelta veterans are looking to eek out the final drops of form. One final hurrah before the wheels are hung up for a few weeks and a 10-month season finally closes.

So, what can we expect from Saturday’s race? The start list is packed, with all three grand tour winners set to line up in Bergamo. As if the presence of Richard Carapaz (Movistar), Egan Bernal (Ineos), and Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) wasn’t enough, Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida), Mikel Landa (Movistar), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and Phillipe Gilbert (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) will also be there.

But who will win? 

Your guess is as good as mine. However, two to watch will definitely be Roglic and Mike Woods (EF Education First). Roglic is on an end-of-season tear after a Vuelta title and two unstoppable performances at Giro dell’Emilia and Tre Valli Varisene in the past week. Woods is a rider seemingly designed for the race’s aggressive parcours and punchy climbs, and is also coming off the back of an impressive winat Milano Torino on Wednesday.

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And that says it all, two very different riders, two strong contenders. 

Stock the fridge and plump the sofa. The racing season ends with one of the most exciting and entrancing races of the year.

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