Blazin' Saddles: Who will win the season's final Monument of Il Lombardia?
Defending champion Esteban Chaves last week falling leaves the door open for a cluster of big-name riders to shine in the fifth and final Monument of the season. Our cycling blogger Felix Lowe looks at the rising allure of Il Lombardia, the hipsters Monument of choice, and weighs up the main favourites for glory.
There's definitely an end of term vibe about Il Lombardia, placed as it at the fag-end of the season and behind the bike sheds. Just the Tour of Turkey (final day detention) and the Tour of Guangxi (early holiday geography field trip) remain on the official WorldTour calendar before those riders who are not already enjoying their small window of rest can finally pack their bags and go home.
A revised route sees the race starting in Bergamo and finishing in Como – a very similar course to that of 2015 when Vincenzo Nibali soloed to glory with a trademark downhill attack off the back of the penultimate climb.
The first thing to remember is that there'll be no defending champion vying to make it two in two. It's a question of, ahem, Ill Lombardia for the Colombian Esteban Chaves, who is forced out after breaking his shoulder in a horror crash during the Giro dell'Emilia last weekend.
If you missed Chaves' grim encounter with the tarmac in the race won by Giovanni Visconti, then look away now…
Last year's other podium finishers – Diego Rosa and the in-form Rigoberto Uran (supremely nonchalant winner of Milano-Torino on Thursday) – should both feature in the race, while there are four previous Lombardia winners on the start list: Philippe Gilbert, Dan Martin, Damiano Cunego (remember him?) and that man Nibali.
At 247km and featuring around 4,000 metres of climbing – including ascents of the iconic Madonna de Ghisallo and Muro di Sormano – The Race of the Falling Leaves is certainly no shindig for the sprinters.
After a flat ride out of Bergamo, the riders warm up with the Colle Gallo (7.4km at 6%) after just over an hour in the saddle. The race loops back to the start town ahead of the Colle Brianza before it takes in the outskirts of Lecco and passes two picturesque lakes, the Lagi di Annone and Pusiano.
After a section along the shores of the glistening Lake Como – the Alpine swimming pool of choice for George Clooney and a raft of Hollywood superstars – comes the renowned Madonna del Ghisallo (8.6% at 6.2%). This is followed by the Colma di Sormano (5.3km at 6.6%) and the savage Muro di Sormano (less than 2km but at a spiteful 17% with a maximum sting of 27%).
This leg-sapping wall was a regular fixture in the 1960s before falling off the Lombardy radar for decades, returning only in 2012. But it did not feature when Joaquim Rodriguez won in 2013, nor for Nibali's 2015 triumph ahead of Dani Moreno.
It's followed by a second stretch along the shores of Como ahead of a final 20km lap that takes in two climbs: the Civilgio (4.2km at 9.8%) and San Fermo della Battaglia (2.7km at 7.2%). Both climbs peak in the double digits, while the second is followed by a technical and fast 5.3km drop to the finish.
The Lombardia enigma
Its place at the end of the season – when many riders have hung up their boots for the year or have even retired completely from the sport – means Il Lombardia packs a different punch than its monumental cousins: Milan-Sanremo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Those earlier races in the spring – by virtue of following the winter close-season and en masse making up the meat and two veg of the calendar – are seen by many as eclipsing the final course on offer this Saturday.
As such, there's an argument that fans and riders alike have perhaps become jaded after months of racing or viewing from the sidelines.
And if Lombardia does not have a reputation as being inferior then it's certainly not viewed by the majority as illustrious as its fellow monuments.
Not that everyone agrees, mind.
Perhaps the truth lies in the fact that the other Monuments are all easier to pigeon hole – have a more glaring USP – than Lombardia.
Although, in the race's defence, it really is the only classic fully designed pretty much for climbers – and that alone distinguishes it from the other Monuments.
In fact, some fans will go as far as declaring Il Lombardia the pick of the bunch.
Others agree but flag up the constant relocating of the finish, which they believe takes something away from the race.
Indeed, next year the course is rumoured to be changing again – with the finish reportedly returning to Lecco for two years, a finish town deemed less interesting than the current climax at Como. But enough of that man Clooney again.
Then there's the question of the local beer – the tipping point for some fans. Peroni and Moretti, they say, just don't cut the mustard when compared to a Belgian Leffe or Duvel.
But it must be said that Il Lombardia's star is on the rise – mirroring the upwards trajectory of La Vuelta, formerly deemed the least alluring of the Grand Tours but recently soaring in the popularity stakes.
Weary legs, erratic weather, undulating terrain, a lack of a predictable Mur de Huy-style decider at the death, and those slippery falling leaves have all made Il Lombardia one of the most watchable Monuments of the season – with fans tuning in precisely because it marks the end of any significant racing on TV for the best part of four months (apologies Tour Down Under, but here in Europe we must call a spade a spade).
What's more, the interest in the preceding Italian races – the Giro dell'Emilia, Tre Valli Varesini and Milano-Torino – has increased considerably. Sure, it hasn't quite hit the levels of Ardennes Week, the Cobbled Classics or the Belgian Spring, but there's no denying that the Italian Autumn is gaining momentum.
Star ratings for the favourites
Rigoberto UranGetty Images
Two podium finishes in the Italian autumn races puts Bahrain-Merida's Nibali right up there as joint favourite alongside the in-form Cannondale-Drapac (Oath-English First) rider Uran, who soloed to glory in Milano-Torino on Thursday.
**** Michal Kwiatkowski, Tom Dumoulin, Wout Poels, Fabio Aru, Julian Alaphilippe
Sagan, Kwiatkowski and Alaphilippein Milan-San Remotwitter
Poland's Kwiatkowski will look to book-end a strong season with another monumental tome while Team Sky also have a decent wildcard to play in the rangy Poels, who deserves more from his season than a runners-up spot on the Angliru. Another Dutchman, Team Sunweb's Dumoulin, will look to win his first one-day race ever, while both Aru (Astana) and Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) are showing enough end-of-season zip to be considered.
*** Mikel Landa, Thibaut Pinot, Philippe Gilbert, Adam Yates, Dan Martin, Primoz Roglic
Philippe GilbertGetty Images
In his last outing for Team Sky, Landa could try signing off in style – but could ultimately be invisible. That's just how he rolls. Frenchman Pinot (FDJ) made the podium in Tre Valli while Yates (Orica-Scott) was impressive in finishing behind Uran in Turin. You can never discount the likes of Quick-Step duo Gilbert and Martin on this kind of terrain, while LottoNL-Jumbo's Roglic could use his motor to devastating effect.
** Tim Wellens, Nairo Quintana, Giovanni Visconti, Miguel Angel Lopez, Warren Barguil, Bauke Mollema
Giovanni Visconti, Bahrain - Merida 2017Imago
Fourth in Milano-Torino, Quintana (Movistar) could save his season with an unlikely win in Como. Fellow Colombian Lopez (Astana) may try his luck if team-mate Aru falters, while Barguil could end his Sunweb career on a high if one of his scattergun attacks pays off. Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) is past his best but can shine on his day, Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) is due a big result while Visconti (Bahrain-Merida) has nothing to lose after winning the Giro dell'Emilia.
* Tony Gallopin, Diego Rosa, Diego Ulissi, David Gaudu, Nico Roche
Tony GallopinGetty Images
Italian Diegos Rosa (Sky) and Ulissi (UAE-Team Emirates) are outsiders but the former was runner-up last year and the latter has three top 10s from the past week. Call him Lloyds Bank and French youngster Gaudu still wouldn't be a bigger dark horse than he already is, but the FDJ starlet was fifth in Milano-Torino so who knows what he can do when he breaks into an uphill canter. Finally, let's include Roche (BMC) and Gallopin (Cofidis) simply because they usually attack at some point and one day it will have to pay off.