Saturday’s Giro di Lombardia, the “race of falling leaves,” effectively closes the 2010 road season. While a few events remain on the calendar, most teams and riders will have called it a year by tomorrow evening. But despite its end-of-calendar time slot, Lombardy’s a prize any rider would love to take—it’s one of the sport’s five monuments after all.
This year’s event features a new parcours—one that’s longer and harder than in years past. Race organizers RCS have inserted a new climb—the Colma di Sormano—shortly after the Ghisallo, adding 9 more kilometers of pure climbing to the traditional finale. The Sormano’s addition increases the difficulty—and importance—of the race’s penultimate hour, as gaps earned by the end of the Ghisallo-Sormano double might be hard to overcome over the race’s remaining 40 kilometers.
Picking favorites for the race is relatively easy task as few riders have the stamina (by the end of long season) to peak for it—most participants are just filling roster spots or hoping for a last-gasp result to earn a new or better contract of the following season. This year’s no different, as only a handful of riders come to Lombardy with a realistic shot at winning. Let’s take a look:
Philippe Gilbert returns to Lombardy with the same form that saw him take last year’s edition, albeit with fewer wins to show for it. His impressive victory in Thursday’s Giro del Piemonte sent an impressive message to his rivals, but I wonder how the new course will affect him, as the Sormano might be a bit too long and steep for an all-rounder like Gilbert. Will the climb’s 13 kilometers of steep pitches favor grand tour riders more than classics specialists? In his favor, Gilbert has the strongest team in the event, an important fact considering he might need to a teammate cover any Sormano moves while the rest work to close any significant gaps that might have been created. If he makes the lead group after the Sormano, it’s his race to lose.
Nibali’s an attractive candidate for the win tomorrow. If he has managed to hold his fitness from his September Vuelta victory, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with in Lombardy. His attack at Worlds bodes well for his chances, as does his fifth-place in Saturday’s Giro dell’Emilia. A terrific climber and an even better descender, the new parcours suits his strengths. If he and a select group manage to gap Gilbert and the other more traditional classics contenders, look for Nibali to add important win to an already impressive season.
I was hoping Piemonte would have provided an indication as to the level of Evans’ fitness, but he dropped-out mid-race, clearly saving himself for Lombardy. And while I can’t blame him for the decision—he’s raced more or less non-stop this season including peaks for the Ardennes, the Giro, the Tour de France, and Worlds—I’m wondering if he’s several steps below where he needs to be to contend. That said, he rode well at Worlds and appears to be guarding his fitness carefully—a win for BMC’s Australian would be anything but a surprise.
Katusha’s Rodriguez is another rider hoping his Vuelta form is lingering. One of the strongest climbers in the Spanish grand tour, Rodriguez took a mountain stage on his way to finishing 4th-overall. He then skipped Worlds—an interesting choice considering his track record in recent years. Clearly Rodriguez hopes the time off—and the lack of frequent flyer miles—will benefit in Lombardy. For the world’s #1-ranked rider, a win would put the finishing touch on the best of his career.
Last year, Daniel Martin finished 8th in the Tour of Lombardy, a result that has been overshadowed by his success this season. After a solid second-place in last Saturday’s tough Giro dell’ Emilia, Martin takes the starting line Saturday in Milan as one of the top favorites for the win. Martin should be able to capitalize on the presence of several favorites with a higher profile. If I were he, I’d mark Nibali, a rider with similar strengths.
Scarponi’s been rather quiet since the Giro d’Italia—but don’t count him out Saturday. He finished third in Emilia and leads a surprisingly powerful Androni Giacattoli squad. A canny rider capable of following both the pure climbers and the aggressive all-rounders, Scarponi could prove tough to shake by the end of Saturday’s race.
If there’s justice in the world, Kolobnev will take the win Saturday. The Russian champion is quickly becoming this generation’s Micheal Boogerd—with even less wins to show for his aggressive late-race efforts. The difficult Sormano might force Kolobnev to take a backseat to his teammate Rodriguez though, but if the race comes back together, look for Kolobnev to be the first man glued to Gilbert’s wheel (if his teammate Pozzato doesn’t beat him there first).
Cervelo’s new World Champion, Thor Hushovd, might attract more paparazzi, but Xavi Tondo deserves all the respect–at least in this race. After an fine 6th-place ride in the Vuelta, the Spanirad comes to Italy hoping to improve upon his impressive September. All signs point to a fine finish in Bergamo–does he have the form to win?
Sanchez took the opposite approach of many of the contenders for this season’s fall classics: he skipped the Vuelta, but travelled to Worlds. It remains to be seen if the strategy will pay-off, but with a second-place finish last year (albeit with a Vuelta in his legs), Sanchez is not one to ignore.
Fuglsang’s been quietly riding himself into top shape over the past few weeks, and now the talented young Dane seems to be on the verge of a breakthrough victory. More of an all-rounder, I wonder if he’ll be able to follow the best climbers on the Sormano. If he can, he’s a certain podium contender, and if things go just right, could take the victory.
And my pick to grab the win? For some reason, my gut tells me Vincenzo Nibali has one more big victory in his legs this season. The Sormano’s expected to be a climb of over 2025 minutes—that could be enough to drop the likes of Gilbert and Kolobnev. Nibali’s Liquigas team knows how to control a race—as evidenced by their two grand tour victories this season. If they ride a tempo that sheds the all-rounders, look for Nibali to be the fastest of a lead group containing many of this year’s grand tour protagonists.
And what about you—who are your picks for the final monument of the year?
Share your picks and comments below.