Why the race of the falling leaves is a fittingly romantic season finale
“The race of the falling leaves. It’s one of my favourite days of the year.”
Il Lombardia is a romantic enigma. The fifth and final Monument of the cycling calendar is something of an outlier, coming half a year after the rest of the sport’s major one-day classics and arriving when for many the season feels like it’s all-but over.
But it is that uniqueness that makes Lombardia so special.
Just mention the climber’s classic to cycling fans and their eyes light up.
“There are two reasons to love Lombardia and one of them is the setting,” journalist Tom Owen tells Eurosport.
" The terrain that it goes through in northern Italy, starting in Bergamo and taking in Lake Como, it’s a stunning part of the world and it’s always a treat to watch just in that very superficial aspect."
And he’s not alone in that view. “It’s one of my favourite days of the year, the scenery will be spectacular,” muses commentator Rob Hatch as he prepares for another race behind the microphone for Eurosport.
It’s the scenery that is arguably the standout characteristic of the autumnal classic. With the race lacking that one iconic location that encapsulates the essence of each of the spring classics, it is the beauty of the Italian lakes that keeps it among the upper echelon of one-day races. That and the brutally demanding route.
“Il Lombardia is far from romantic for the riders, with its difficult climbs, but for those of us that watch it on our TV screens we fall in love with the race of the falling leaves,” cycling pundit and former British road race champion Brian Smith tells Eurosport UK.
" The finish in Como is one of my favourite places I have visited with its Italian culture and beautiful vistas. Who could not love this part of the world? "
“It’s the last chance of the year to win big and the Italian fans demand the best from their own. The atmosphere is always electric and this race always comes to life as we hit the climbs towards the end of the day.”
Coming weeks after the World Championship and what seems like it should be the natural end point of the season, Lombardia is famously difficult to predict, with form so difficult to gauge in such a sparse period of the calendar, and so many riders with motivating factors as the season finally draws to a close.
It’s that scheduling that makes Lombardia particularly special, with some riders still looking for a win in the season, others trying to negotiate contracts or search out new teams, and others still carrying form from the World Championship road race.
The autumnal weather helps add to the drama too. Known as ‘the race of the falling leaves’, Lombardia often features slippery road conditions, which on the climbs and descents around the Italian lakes only adds to the unpredictable nature of a race geared up for punchy climbers.
“The other thing that’s quite enthralling about Lombardia is that we have absolutely no idea how anyone’s going, because we get this strange break for the World Championships,” Tom Owen says. “Most of the riders who are likely to do well in a Lombardia tend not to have even considered going to the World’s, and that creates an air of chaos – a little bit of the unknown, which is obviously very exciting for us as fans.
" There’s also this element always of redemption towards the end of the season. We say it a lot about the Vuelta Espana, but it applies just as much to Lombardia."
"There are lots of guys who haven’t won in the year and really ought to have, and there are lots of people negotiating contracts, so there’s plenty of motivation still this late on in the season and it’s a final chance to see who’s finishing the year strong.”
So if it’s got so many special ingredients, why isn’t the Tour of Lombardy considered quite on the level of some of the spring classics?
“If there’s a reason not to love it, a reason maybe that it’s not as popular as some of the other monuments – I think it lacks that really defining image,” Tom Owen says. “There are no cobbles like Paris-Roubaix or Tour of Flanders, Liege-Bastogne-Liege has its brutal series of climbs in the Ardennes, and Milan-San Remo is obviously iconic for being a sprinter’s classic but with the Poggio just before the end. Lombardia has a less fixed identity I think, it’s less of a brand, and that makes it a bit harder to latch on to.”
Less of a fixed identity. Less of a brand. Always exciting.
That's encapsulates why the near-indefinable Lombardia is the most romantic of the classics.