The tough route of the 110th edition of the 'Race of the falling leaves' includes 4,400m of climbing and several new climbs as it snakes from Como to Bergamo. With rain also expected at the weekend, the 241km race should see a select group of climbers emerge and fight for victory.
The Classics season begins with Milan-San Remo in the spring, with riders excited about racing to the sunny Italian coast in late March. Come October and the leaves are falling in the Lombardy hills. The now-tired riders are looking happily towards their end of season break but first they face a final and important big race effort.
UCI points are awarded to the top 10 finishers at Il Lombardia on a sliding scale, from 100 for the winner to 4 for tenth place. Each point could prove to be decisive for this year's WorldTour team rankings and consequently for the final 2017 WorldTour licences.
Movistar are on course to win the WorldTour team rankings yet again but Tinkoff is only 70 points adrift. A disastrous day for the Spanish team could give the Russian squad the chance to celebrate before its extinction.
Whatever the outcome, team owner Oleg Tinkov is no doubt preparing to open some vintage bottles of wine on Saturday at the team's special party in Milan. The team is on a high, despite its demise, because Peter Sagan has topped the individual WorldTour rankings after his successful season as world champion.
Sagan will not ride Il Lombardia and does not need to. With Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana having already ended their season, they are not a threat to the Slovakian. On Saturday he will be crowned as the winner of the individual ranking with a total of 669 points. Quintana is second with 609 points and Froome is third with 564 points.
WorldTour fight for survival
The bottom of the WorldTour team rankings is much more of a fight and a fight for survival, with the last battle on the road at Il Lombardia.
Giant-Alpecin, Dimension Data and several other teams are fighting to secure points. As part of the reforms to the 2017 WorldTour, the UCI agreed with Tour de France organiser ASO as part of a peace deal that only 17 teams will be given places for the top tier next season.
The demise of the Tinkoff and IAM Cycling teams appeared to leave places for everyone in the existing 2016 WorldTour, plus the new team Bahrain-Merida, and Bora-Hansgrohe, which plans to step up from Professional Continental status after signing Sagan. However the arrival of new Chinese owners at Lampre and their decision to stay in the WorldTour have changed everything. Now four teams are fighting for the three final places in the 2017 WorldTour.
So far there are no signs that the UCI will change the rules and include 18 teams, even if this would resolve a lot of problems linked to sponsorship and contracts for whichever team fails to secure a WorldTour place.
The 2017 WorldTour teams will be selected under new rules that have not been publicly revealed by the UCI. Cyclingnews understands that the 16 highest-placed teams at the end of the 2016 WorldTour will be considered to have automatically satisfied the sporting criterion for the 2017 season.
The two last placed teams will be given '2017 UCI WorldTour candidate status', along with 'other teams existing in 2016 and newly-created' teams aspiring to become a WorldTeam in 2017. The 2017 WorldTour candidates will then be evaluated by adding up the points of their five best-ranked riders of the 2016 or 2017 roster in the UCI WorldTour individual rankings.
Before il Lombardia the UCI WorldTour team rankings show Giant-Alpecin and Dimension Data in 17th and 18th place, and so facing a fight with Bahrain-Merida and Bora-Hansgrohe for the three places in the 2017 WorldTour.
Giant-Alpecin has an excellent chance to move up to the safety of the 16th ranked team but needs to score three more points than IAM Cycling in Lombardia. That job will fall to Warren Barguil on Saturday. He needs to finish in the top ten and hope that Mathias Frank or Larry Warbasse fail to pick up points. AG2R-La Mondiale will be hoping that Romain Bardet can also score points to help lift them away the 'relegation zone', while Lampre-Merida will also be hoping and riding to score any many points as possible to avoid any potential problems.
WorldTour points unfortunately influence ever race on the calendar, with riders and teams often sacrificing the chance of victory to secure points. Il Lombardia will be a real race within the race.
A hard race for the last Monument of the 2016 season
As the last Monument Classic on the calendar, Il Lombardia traditionally marks the end of the major road racing season with the new world champion traditionally showing off their rainbow jersey. This year the Italian race comes two weeks earlier than usual to allow the World Championships to be held in the cooler Qatar climate, later in October.
Many of the World Championship contenders, the sprinters and the rouleur teammates, will polish their form and test their legs for a last time at next Sunday's Paris-Tours. Il Lombardia will make the last big race of the season for the climbers and Grand Tour contenders.
The new 241km route arguably makes Il Lombardia the toughest one-day race of the season. It follows a reverse direction of last year's edition, which was won by Vincenzo Nibali with a solo attack. The race starts overlooking Lake Como and finishes in Bergamo after a late climb to the historic Bergamo Alta. In between are eight tough climbs, several of which have never been used before in the race.
The route has a shark's tooth profile with the steep climb to the Madonna del Ghisallo cyclist's chapel coming early after just 50km. The tough finale begins with the Valcava after 130km. It is 11.65km long, with an average gradient of 8 per cent that stays in double figures for the final five kilometres. A long descent takes the race to the new climbs, with the Berbenno used as a warm-up.
The climb to Sant'Antonio Abbandonato is 6.5km long with a gradient of 8.9 per cent. A steep descent leads to the foot of the Miragolo San Salvatore, which is 8.7km long at 7 per cent. It ends at the 200km point in the race route but is followed by a descent to the foot of the Selvino (6.9km at 5.4 per cent).
The only flat road in the final 120km of racing comes between the Selvino and the final cobbled ramp up to Bergamo Alta (1.2km 7.9 per cent). Many of the roads are narrow and twisting, on both the climbs and descents, adding an extra factor to the race, especially in the event of rain and falling leaves. It is no surprise that all the major teams have studied and ridden the final part of the route in the last few days. It is going to be a hard day in the saddle, with few making it to the finish.
The cobbled climb to Bergamo has inspired attacks whenever Il Lombardia finishes in the city. The descent to the finish in modern Bergamo is also important. In 2014 Dan Martin was part of a stellar break that formed on the descent from Bergamo Alta. He attacked inside the final kilometer just before the final corner, to win ahead of Alejandro Valverde and Rui Costa.
The main contenders
Dan Martin is one of the leaders of the Etixx-QuickStep this season, alongside Julian Alaphilippe and Gianluca Brambilla. As with all the big names on the start list, their chances of success depend on their end of season form, motivation and ability to handle the hard, hilly route. Martin and Etixx-QuickStep face some serious opposition.
In the absence of Nibali, Fabio Aru wears number one for Astana. He will have support from Diego Rosa, Milan-Turin winner Miguel Lopez and Jakob Fuglsang. Lopez beat Michael Woods and Rigoberto Uran to win Wednesday's race and Cannondale-Drapac seem to be on form as the season comes to an end. They also have Davide Formolo and Moreno Moser in their squad.
Bardet leads the AG2R-La Mondiale team and showed his form with a strong surge on the climb to the finish of Milan-Turin. He was second behind Esteban Chaves (Orica-Bike Exchange) at the recent Giro dell'Emilia that finishes on the San Luca climb overlooking Bologna. His 2016 would be remembered for more than just his stage win and second place at the Tour de France if he wins Il Lombardia.
Chaves fought hard to finish third at the Vuelta a Espana but his Giro dell'Emilia win showed he is still smiling and still clearly on form. Orica wisely rested him this week but have backed him for Saturday with a solid squad.
Alberto Contador leads the Tinkoff team as it tries to topple Movistar in the team rankings. He has not raced since the Vuelta and so it is unclear if he will be a contender in the finale. BMC has selected both Greg van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert but the race is likely to be too hilly for both of them.
Other riders to watch include Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida), Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) and possibly Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner Wout Poels (Team Sky). He is joined by Mikel Landa, Leopold König, Nicolas Roche, and Peter Kennaugh.
Il Lombardia is likely to be their final big race in Team Sky colours for König, Roche and Swift. König will return to Bora-Hansgrohe after two years away with the team, Roche heads to BMC for 2017, while Swift is set to join the new Chinese-backed TJ Sport project.
Il Lombardia will also be the last major race for several veterans in the peloton. Ryder Hesjedal, Frank Schleck and 2011 winner Oliver Zaugg will all say goodbye at Il Lombardia, with former two-time winner Joaquim Rodriguez also set to bow out despite team interested in him just for his haul of UCI WorldTour points.
UCI WorldTour teams rankings as of September 29, 2016
|4||BMC Racing Team||1128|
|7||Etixx - Quick-Step||775|
|12||Astana Pro Team||463|
|14||Lampre - Merida||442|
|15||AG2R La Mondiale||418|