The 2018 road season has reached its final days, and while the Tour of Guangxi might bring the curtain down on the WorldTour, the European campaign ends with a series of one-day races in Italy and France over the next week.
Low sunlight and falling leaves are the order of the day as riders put the finishing touches to their campaigns. For some, these are simply fixtures to fulfil at the end of a long and demanding season. Others are still chasing contracts for 2019. Plenty more are looking to eke everything they can out of some late-season form. No matter the circumstance, these are races worth winning.
Il Lombardia, the fifth and final Monument of the season, is the loftiest prize still up for grabs, but the Giro dell'Emilia, Paris-Tours, Tre Valli Varesine, Milano-Torino and Gran Piemonte all have a history and cachet of their own. The 2018 season is almost over, but, for many, the final word has yet to be written.
Giro dell'Emilia – Saturday, October 6
A fixture on the calendar since 1909, the Giro dell'Emilia remains something of a hidden gem for international audiences, though a cursory glance of the race's palmarès highlights its difficulty and its prestige. In the 21st century alone, winners have included Michele Bartoli, Jan Ullrich, Nairo Quintana and Gilberto Simoni.
The race sets out from Bologna and features the climbs of Mongardino, Passo Brasimone and Valico Ganzole before returning to the red-hued city for four laps of a demanding, 9.3km finishing circuit centred around the climb to the Santuario della Madonna di San Luca.
The short but wickedly steep, portico-lined climb will be the site of the uphill time trial on the opening stage of next year's Giro d'Italia, and will, as ever, provide a thrilling finale to Saturday's race. It is also a reliable indicator of post-Worlds motivation and pre-Lombardia form.
A year ago, Giovanni Visconi led a Bahrain-Merida one-two, with Vincenzo Nibali claiming second place ahead. Both men are back in action this year, while Gianni Moscon and the returning Egan Bernal lead the Team Sky challenge.
EF-Drapac have a pair of potential winners in Worlds bronze medallist Michael Woods and Rigoberto Uran, while Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Enrico Battaglin, Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo), Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and Mikel Landa (Movistar) all figure in a deep start list.
Paris-Tours – Sunday, October 7
A crucial round in the days of the old World Cup, Paris-Tours has tended to fly under the radar during the WorldTour era, which is a shame, given the quality of the fare offered up each year in the final French Classic of the season.
Like Milan-San Remo at the other end of the calendar, the central tension of Paris-Tours is the battle between the escapees and the sprinters. Men like Jacky Durand, Richard Virenque and Philippe Gilbert have denied the fast men over the years on the Avenue de Grammont, and the rippling hills and twisting roads in the final 50 kilometres have always given attacking riders a fighting chance of defying the odds.
The parcours has been amended for 2018, with the addition of 12.5km of gravel tracks through the vineyards of the Vouvray area in the final 60 kilometres on Sunday. Seven new climbs also feature on the route, which suggests that ASO wants to tilt the balance more definitively in favour of the breakaway specialists.
Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step) will be on hand in search of a third victory, alongside Niki Terpstra and Yves Lampaert. Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale), Sep Vanmarcke (EF-Drapac) and Soren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb) are among those who will look to go on the offensive, and it would be a surprise if the retiring Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie) does not enjoy a cameo off the front. The sprint field is headlined by Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo), Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), André Greipel (Lotto Soudal) and Dan McLay (EF-Drapac).
GP Bruno Beghelli – Sunday, October 7
A day after the Giro dell'Emilia, the fast men have an opportunity to show their quality in the same part of the world in the GP Bruno Beghelli, which takes place on a rather less demanding course. Starting and finishing in Monteveglio Valsamoggia, the course takes in ten laps of the Zappolini circuit, but with 8km from the final climb to the finish, it is difficult for late attackers to stay clear alone.
Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) won last year's race and returns this season, while Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida), Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) and Jose Joaquin Rojas (Movistar) are among the fast men with an eye on victory.
Tre Valli Varesine – Tuesday, October 9
The third and final installment of the Trittico Lombardo series of races, the Tre Valli Varesine has shifted from its traditional August date in recent years to its current slot as part of the cluster of Italian one-day races in the build-up to Il Lombardia.
The race starts in Saronno and then winds around the Lago di Varese before reaching the town of Varese itself for a series of laps on two different finishing circuits. The last two laps take in the climb of Montello, which featured on the Worlds circuit in 2008, when Alessandro Ballan and Damiano Cunego led an Italian one-two.
A year ago, Alexandre Geniez (AG2R La Mondiale) out-sprinted Thibaut Pinot and Vincenzo Nibali after they escaped on the final lap. All three riders should feature again here, together with Gianni Moscon (Sky), who was accused of causing Sebastien Reichenbach's crash in the race a year ago. The UCI ultimately dropped proceedings against Moscon due to a lack of video evidence.
LottoNL-Jumbo could have a strong team, with Roglic, Battaglin, Robert Gesink and George Bennett all in line to start, while it will be interesting to see what Michael Matthews (Sunweb) is capable of on this kind of terrain after his surprise omission from the Australian Worlds squad.
Milano-Torino – Wednesday, October 10
Bike races between Milan and Turin date all the way back to 1876, but at the turn of the decade, it looked as though the venerable event had come to an end. Milano-Torino was not held between 2008 and 2011, but was finally restored to the calendar in 2012 with revamped and evocative finale atop the climb of Superga overlooking Turin.
Alberto Contador was the first winner at the new finish line in the shadow of the Basilica, not far from where the great Torino football team of the 1940s perished in an airplane crash in May 1949. The win was the first and only one-day victory of Contador's professional career and it signalled Milano-Torino's status as a marquee event in the final days of the season.
The route from the start in Magenta is a largely flat one, and the race is inevitably decided by the twin ascents of the climb to Superga in the finale. The 4.9km ascent has an average gradient of 9.1% and a maximum pitch of 14%, making it a finale for strongmen.
A year ago, Rigoberto Uran claimed victory ahead of Adam Yates, Fabio Aru and Nairo Quintana. Yates is back this year, and a strong field is also set to include Thibaut Pinot, Mikel Landa, Tiesj Benoot, Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), Gianni Moscon, Sam Oomen (Sunweb), Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and time trial world champion Rohan Dennis (BMC).
Gran Piemonte – Thursday, October 11
Gran Piemonte – as the Tour of Piedmont was rebranded a decade ago – offers rather gentler terrain than the Classics that take place either side of it, Milano-Torino and Il Lombardia. The palmarès lists Fabio Aru as the 2017 winner, but that triumph is deceptive, as last year's edition of Gran Piemonte was combined with the rather tougher Italian national championships route around Ivrea, meaning that Aru's tricolour jersey came with something of a two-for-one offer.
The race returns to the calendar in its usual slot and regular format in 2018, and thus there is nary a climb worth mentioning on the 191km route between Racconigi and Stupinigi. RCS Sport have managed to persuade new world champion Alejandro Valverde to line out in what might be his first appearance in the rainbow bands.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Tiesj Benoot, Tim Wellens, Sacha Modolo (EF-Drapac) and Filippo Ganna (UAE Team Emirates) are among the confirmed participants. In theory, the race is one for the fast men, but at this late point in the season, a break always has a fighting chance of staying clear, as recent winners such as Philippe Gilbert (2010), Rigoberto Uran (2012) and Jan Bakelants (2015) will testify.
Il Lombardia – Saturday, October 13
The Chrono des Nations gives the time triallists once last outing a week later, but the European road racing season effectively comes to an end amid the crisp leaves and mellow sunshine of Il Lombardia.
The Race of the Falling Leaves is the most scenic race on the calendar and though the route has been altered repeatedly over the years, the sight of riders passing the chapel atop the Madonna del Ghisallo or swooping along the shores of Lake Como is stitched into cycling's collective memory.
As was the case in 2017, Il Lombardia this year begins in Bergamo and finishes in Como, through the threat of landslides has seen the climb of San Fermo della Battaglia excised from the route. There are still some 4,000 metres of vertical climbing, with the Colle Brianza, Madonna del Ghisallo and Muro di Sormano followed by the climb to Civiglio with 14km remaining. The finale features the punchy 1.7km climb of Monte Olimpo, the summit of which comes just 3km from the line.
Vincenzo Nibali soloed to his second Il Lombardia victory in three years in 2017 and the Italian will be looking to finish a difficult season on an upbeat note here. Already winner of Milan-San Remo in March, he is looking to bookend his campaign with Italian Monument wins.
The world champion Valverde is an obvious challenger, together with Thibaut Pinot, who was third in 2015 and an aggressive presence a year ago. Simon and Adam Yates, Gianni Moscon, Romain Bardet, Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors), Primoz Roglic, Michael Woods and 2014 winner Dan Martin are among the confirmed participants.