Unlike last weekâ€™s Paris-Tours, the Giro di Lombardia relishes in continually re-branding itself and challenging its participants (and bloggers) with route changes. Other than its current position on the race calendarâ€”hence its nicknameÂ â€œthe Race of the Falling Leavesâ€â€”and its usual ride around Lake Como, Lombardy is a classic with no predetermined starting or finishing point.
With a challenging parcours including the traditional climb to the Madonna del Ghisallo and the short but tough San Fermo della Battaglia, riders hoping to win the seasonâ€™s final Monument need to bring their climbing legs. Calm riding and a strong tactical nous play a role as well as evidenced by Damiano Cunegoâ€™s three distinct wins: in 2004 he won from a small group sprint, in 2007 from a two-up break, and in 2008 from a downhill solo attack down the Civiglio.
This year’s route change could suit pure classics specialists even more. The finale consists of the Madonna del Ghisallo with 46 kilometers left to race followed by the Villa Vergano at nine kilometers from the line. If the weather holds, look for a small group to stay together until the bottom of the final climb where some serious attacks will likely determine the raceâ€™s final outcome.
Thursdayâ€™s Gran Piemonte traditionally serves as a predictor of whoâ€™s ready for Lombardia as Philippe Gilbert and Damiano Cunego have proven in recent years. However, this yearâ€™s race was won by the relatively unheralded Daniel Moreno of Team Katusha, who defeated BMCâ€™s Greg Van Avermaet (fresh from his victory in Paris-Tours) and Morenoâ€™s teammate Luca Paolini. Does one of the these men have the legs to contend Saturday? Could Van Avermaet be the second Belgian in three years to complete the â€œAutumn Doubleâ€? Hereâ€™s a run-down of the men to watch this weekend:
Riders to watch
1. Philippe Gilbert (OmegaPharma-Lotto)
If nothing else, Gilbert’s failure to deliver in Sundayâ€™s Paris-Tours illustrated just how muchÂ teamwork matters. The late break dangled enticingly just ahead of the peloton, but with no team willing to bear the full responsibility to chase, they were let go. And despite his seemingly super-human season, a single Gilbert is not enough to bring back a large breakaway of men who believe in their chances to make it to the line first. Will the Belgian Champion have better luck in Lombardia? If so, heâ€™ll need to be at his best: his team seems tired as it is, and with the last-minute departures of Jelle Vanendert and Jan Bakelants, he has only five men left to support him.
2. Giovanni Visconti (Farnese Vini – Neri Sottoli)
Sticking around with the Professional Continental Farnese Vini squad has meant that Visconti’s opportunities in big races are limited. The Giro di Lombardia is as big as it gets at this point in the season. He always seems to figure well on the Ghisallo climb, and given its position this year the Italian Champion might make the final selection. He has had a spate of decent results recently, including high finishes at the Marco Pantani Memorial and Coppa Sabatini, where the misjudgment of following Pippo Pozzato’s wheel arguably cost him the race. He may be leaving for Movistar, but count on Visconti to animate the race.
3. Ivan Basso and Vicenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale)
Despite â€œoffâ€ seasons by their 2010 standards, Basso and Nibali and come to Lombardy as contenders for the last big event of the Italian calendar. Basso has had a quiet but steady build-up, the highlight of which was a stage win and the overall title at the Giro di Padania (ahead of Visconti). On the other hand, Nibali has not ridden much since finishing seventh at the Vuelta a Espana (a race he won last year before finishing fifth in Lombardy). Of the two, Bassoâ€™s appears to be the stronger, fresher rider, but Nibali, the strong descender, should benefit from the Verganoâ€™s descent to the finish line.Â
Arguably the second strongest Italian squad in the race, Lampre-ISD has both Damiano Cunego (a 3-time Lombardy winner) and Michele Scarponi (last yearâ€™s runner-up). Despite such talent, the squad finds itself unable to finish the job in high profile races. Scarponi deserves kudos for his brave attacks in Mayâ€™s Giro d’Italia, but other than Cunego’s near-win at the Tour de Suisse and a wheel-following top-10 ride at the Tour de France, there hasnâ€™t been too much to say about the two leaders. Will Giro di Lombardia see them break through? If both men make it to the finale, they could play off one another quite wellâ€”but who will ride for whom?
5. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC)
Fresh off his win in Paris-Tours, Van Avermaet continued his fine run of fitness with a near-win in Thursdayâ€™s Gran Piemonte. Given his proven staying power in long races (remember his late-race attack in Milan-San Remo?), and the strong, motivated team supporting him, this could be Van Avermaetâ€™s chance to pull a â€œGilbertâ€â€”just in time for Phil to rejoin him next year at BMC.
6. Team Katusha
After a largely lackluster season, it appears as if Team Katusha has awakened. Critics werenâ€™t so convinced by Pippo Pozzatoâ€™s win in the GP Beghelli, but itâ€™s hard to argue with Morenoâ€™s win in Gran Piemonte, especially with teammate Luca Paolini rounding off the podium. Factor Joachin Rodriguezâ€™ seemingly inexhaustible reserve of late-season fitnessâ€”and former Lombardy winner Danilo Di Lucaâ€”and thereâ€™s little stopping Katusha from playing a prominent role in the finale. Then again, weâ€™ve said that about them before.
7. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank)
Mollema is one of the latest of Rabobank’s homegrown talent. Last year he was slightly off the pace in Lombardia, finishing 13th. His form is clearly there though: he was 2nd in the Giro dell’Emilia last Saturday and won the Points Jersey at the Vuelta. Donâ€™t discount the Dutchmanâ€™s chances Sunday.
8. Â Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi)
The Olympic Champion has been a consistent high-finisher in the Giro di Lombardiaâ€”most notably his 3rd place in 2007 and 2nd place in 2009. But this year, it is unclear if he still has some fighting power left after a long season. He didn’t ride the Vuelta after winning a stage and the polka dot jersey at the Tour de France. A good showing at the Vuelta a Burgos, a few Dutch criteriums, and a moment of aggression in the GP Montreal are not the most convincing indicators of the form or the desire it takes to win a Monument. Should Sanchez fail to deliver, Mikel Nieve might be the one to answer the call; he finished seventh last year.Â
9. Dark Horses
Pablo Lastras has had an interesting career so far. A consummate team player, he broke through last year to finish third in Lombardia. This year has seen him win a stage of the Vuelta. This year also saw a much busier schedule spanning the entire season. Lastras is no spring chicken, but we think that he might just be breaking into the big leagues.Â
There are a few other men whose form suggest they may finish well Saturday, including Nicolas Roche, who won a stage at the Tour of Beijing and made the big break at Piemonte, and last yearâ€™s third-place finisher in Lombardy, Pablo Lastras. And donâ€™t forget Quick Stepâ€™s duo of Dries Devenyns and Sylvain Chavanel.
So after a 2011 season full of exciting races and what seems like an avalanche of injuries, who will triumph in Lecco? Share your comments and picks below.