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Season closer offers final glory on the road for 2010
Top three at the 2009 Giro di Lombardia (l-r): Samuel Sanchez, 2nd; Philippe Gilbert, 1st; Alexandr Kolobnev, 3rd.
The road racing season official ends on Saturday with the Tour of Lombardy, bringing down the curtain on the long professional season which began back in January at the Tour Down Under.
The race is known as the 'Race of the Falling Leaves' for the breathtaking route through the tree covered hills of northern Lombardy that overshadow Lake Como.
It is a true Italian race and the true last Classic of the season, with riders saying an often emotional farewell to teammates and friends.
Some riders will be chasing victory to make up for disappointment at the world championships, others will be looking for a result to secure a contract for 2011. Most will be happy to be able to leave their bike alone for a few weeks, let the hair grow on their legs and let their tired bodies recover after a long season.
The Tour of Lombardy has changed route several times during its 105-year history and has been tweaked again this year, making it longer and even tougher.
The race is backed by the Lombardy Regional Council and will start in the shadows of the new council offices, close to the centre of Milan, instead of Varese, it's most recent start town. The new route means the riders now face 260km and so close on six hours in the saddle.
The first 60km of the route takes the race from Milan to the edge of Lake Como. The peloton will get a chance to look at the San Fermo di Battaglia climb that also comes just before the finish but then quickly head off north along the lake shore and tackle the Intelvi climb. By here the early break of adventurers will have already formed and probably gained several minutes.
The long loop north takes the race right to the tip of Lake Como before returning south to Lecco for the final 60km and the finale of the race.
The Madonna del Ghisallo is a spectacular climb up from the lakeshore near Bellagio. It is a special place for cyclists and the fulcrum of the Tour of Lombardy.
The Madonna del Ghisallo has been declared the protective patron of cyclists and the summit is home to a tiny cyclists chapel and modern museum packed with bikes, jersey and cycling memorabilia. Everyone should visit it once in their lives to pay homage to our sport and its history.
The steep climb twists and turns up from the lake and usually sparks the first real selection amongst the contenders and condemns the others to an early shower.
This year the race organiser RCS Sport has added the Colma di Sormano climb almost immediately after the Ghisallo instead of the Civiglio climb. The 1124m Colma di Sormano is higher and steeper and should produce some selective racing before the equally spectacular dive down to Como.
True to its stature as a monumental classic, the Tour of Lombardy does not end immediately in Como. The riders face the steep road up the San Fermo di Battaglia climb overlooking Como before a fast final descent to the line overlooking the lake.
Since the late climb has been included in the race it has almost always been the launch pad for decisive attacks, with either one rider or a select few going clear to contest the finish.
Last year Philippe Gilbert scorched clear near the summit and won alone. Damiano Cunego has also won three times thanks to a strong ride on the climb and then a fast finishing sprint.
The 'Little Prince' of Italian cycling is not riding this year's tour of Lombardy having ended his season early and Gilbert is again the big favourite to win and will start wearing number one.
With Robert Gesink (Rabobank) deciding to stay with his family after his father's accident, the Italian riders are likely to be Gilbert's biggest rivals, with Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Doimo), Giovanni Visconti (ISD-Neri), Michele Scarponi (Androni Giocattoli) all looking to end their seasons on a high.
They face competition from a handful of impressive climbers and aggressive classics riders. Cadel Evans will be back in his plain BMC jersey after a year in the rainbow jersey and will be supported by Alessandro Ballan, local rider Mauro Santambrogio and Karsten Kroon.
New world champion Thor Hushovd will wear number 77 in the race, the same number he wore at the world championships in Australia. However the Tour of Lombardy will offer mixed emotions for the Mighty Thor and everyone at the Cervelo TestTeam, because it will be the last race before they disband. Only six of the riders will remain together with Garmin in 2011.
Garmin's Dan Martin finished eighth last year but the tougher route must favour the Irishman more and he proved he is on form with second at last Saturday's Giro dell'Emilia. He will be backed by Tom Danielson, Timmy Duggen, Johan Van Summeren and Michel Kreder.
Edvald Boasson Hagen leads Team Sky and could be an outsider, along with David Moncoutie (Cofidis), Michael Albasini and Marco Pinotti (HTC-Columbia), Alexandre Kolobnev (Katusha) and Jani Brajkovic (RadioShack). They should all be protected riders in their respective teams and so should be there for the final showdown on the San Fermo di Battaglia climb.
Kolobnev's teammate Joaquin Rodriguez will also be on the start as he prepares to be crowned the leader of the UCI World Ranking for the 2010 season.
Most riders will be happy just to celebrate the end of the season. However for some, such as Jose 'Chechu' Rubiera it will also mark the end of their careers. Andy Schleck will also ride his last major race with Saxo Bank before beginning a new adventure with the Luxembourg Cycling Project Team.
The Tour of Lombardy is the last major race of the season but like a wheel that forever, it also marks the start of a next season. And the start of the Tour Down Under is less than three months away.