The â€œrace of the falling leavesâ€ is named for its calendar placement, but itâ€™s also a race when many of the pelotonâ€™s leaves have fallen from the tree as well. With so many riders having ended their seasons, the list of contenders for this weekendâ€™s Tour of Lombardy is relatively short. Itâ€™s a shame though; the race takes place in the region around Lake Comoâ€”one of Italyâ€™s most beautifulâ€”and features several daunting, yet scenic climbs. (One can only wonder what the race would be like if it had an April start list.) Even though the potential for a dark horse victory exists, letâ€™s take a look at the â€œFive Leaves Leftâ€ to contend for victory in Sundayâ€™s final Monument.
1. Damiano Cunego was relatively quiet following his less-than-stellar showing at Worlds in Mendrisio. He took 14th and 9th last weekend at Emilia and Beghelli though, and it looks like heâ€™s been riding within himself, measuring his efforts to save his last bit of September fitness. A 3-time winner here, Cunego certainly has a team capable of getting him where he needs to be for his fourth. His only obstacle comes in the form of Silence-Lottoâ€™s Gilbert-Evans duo. If he can capitalize on the possible tension between the two (they both stated a desire to win), and use his teammate Ballan to his advantage, look for him to move one win closer to tying Fausto Coppiâ€™s record of 5.
2. Philippe Gilbert put his stamp on the fall with an authoritative win in last Sundayâ€™s Paris-Tours. Then he won the Giro del Piemonte, declaring that heâ€™s in the best form of his life. Frankly, itâ€™s hard to argue with him. On Sunday, Gilbertâ€™s biggest asset might just be his teammate, Cadel Evans (if they decide to work together to exploit their numerical advantage). I give the slight edge to Gilbert in one area over the other favorites: if he arrives in a small group, heâ€™s easily the strongest and most savvy sprinter. Should he come through for Belgium, it will cap an impressive late-season run, making him an early favorite for next yearâ€™s Spring Classics. When its all said and done, Gilbert could prove to be the most complete Classics rider since Michele Bartoli.
3. Iâ€™m starting to wonder if Cadel Evansâ€™ form from the Vuelta and Worlds is starting to wane. He could be saving himself for Saturday, but I canâ€™t help but think heâ€™s a tad below his teammate Gilbert. Regardless, heâ€™s dangerous enough that should he find himself at the front inside the last 50km, heâ€™ll have to be taken seriously. It might be the best thing for Gilbert, having a teammate dangerous enough to make other teams chase could give him a safe ride into the finale. Or Gilbertâ€™s presence could give Evans carte blanche to win his first race in the rainbow jersey.
4. Robert Gesink won a little vindication by winning the Giro dellâ€™Emilia two weeks ago. It was a terrific win in an underrated semi-classic. But after a season of ups and downs (literally), Gesink would love to end with his first big win. His team is certainly up to the challenge, stocked with riders able to place him well for the attacks to come late in the race. His greatest challenge will be overcoming the difficult descents Lombardyâ€™s known for. Often more strategic than the climbs that precede them, Gesink will need to tackle these â€œdownsâ€ with confidence in order to stay in contact with men like Cunego and Gilbert. When it matters, he might not be taken seriouslyâ€”something he can hopefully exploit. If he becomes the first winner since Hennie Kuiper wonâ€™t Michael Boogerd be jealous?
5. Samuel Sanchez is the last of my top favorites for Lombardy. He was present in the finale of Paris-Tours, but couldnâ€™t deliver the goods when it counted. He too might be losing his form following the Vuelta and Worlds, but heâ€™s certainly capable of one last gasp before calling it a season. Heâ€™ll need to let the other favoritesâ€™ teams do the lionâ€™s share of the work, following wheels and attacks until the final selection has been made.
Granted, there are several riders capable of spoiling the partyâ€”Alessandro Ballan, Ivan Basso, and Filippo Pozzato (if he starts)â€”come to mind, but they just donâ€™t seem on par with the five already mentioned.
And my pick? While Iâ€™ll be rooting for Gilbert, I have a feeling Cunego will do just enough to take his 4th win. If he does, expect to see a pink moon over Italy tomorrow night.
Thanks for readingâ€”please share your thoughts below.