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Rodriguez, Rui Costa, Nibali and Valverde all in action
Joaquim Rodriguez loses his cool and howls for joy as he crosses the line to win his first ever Monument at Il Lombardia in a torrential downpour.
A shift in date and an alteration to its title may have troubled those with a sense of cycling’s traditions, but in sporting terms, the Tour of Lombardy – or Il Lombardia, as it is now known – has shown no signs of suffering from the changes introduced last year, and an exceedingly strong field will line up in Bergamo on Sunday.
Last year, the economic (and political) realities of contemporary cycling saw the race shift forward three weeks from its traditional end of season date to allow space for the Tour of Beijing (and, lest we forget, the abortive Tour of Hangzhou). Now taking place a week after the world championships, as was the case in the late 1990s, the Tour of Lombardy again bills itself as a shot at redemption for those who missed out on the rainbow jersey seven days earlier.
As was the case for Milan-San Remo, RCS Sport has this year switched the Tour of Lombardy from a Saturday to a Sunday in order to attract the maximum television audience, but the route remains unchanged from twelve months ago. The 242km race starts in Bergamo and finishes in Lecco, with the Muro di Sormano, Madonna del Ghisallo and Villa Vergano all featuring before that most scenic of finales on the shores of Lake Como.
The demanding nature of last weekend’s Worlds circuit in Florence means that most of the contenders for the rainbow jersey should again be in the mix on the road to Lecco. Rui Costa (Movistar) lines up for his first outing in the famous jersey, and he will aim to become the first man since Paolo Bettini (2006) to win the Worlds and Lombardy in the same year.
The favourite is perhaps Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), who believed he had drawn a line under his status as cycling’s nearly man by claiming his first Monument victory at Il Lombardia twelve months ago. As the Florence Worlds showed, however, Rodriguez seems consigned to unlimited heartbreak on the grandest of stages, but he is determined to draw some consolation in Lombardy, not least because finishing first or second will give him a third WorldTour title should Chris Froome (Sky) fail to land any points.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), whose failure to mark Rui Costa in the finale last Sunday has caused such debate since, is another man looking to put the Worlds behind him, while Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) will hope that his condition and attacking style are compensated more adequately than they were in Florence.
Rigoberto Uran (Sky) is looking for the chance to make amends after crashing out of the winning move at the Worlds, as is Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp), who came a cropper earlier in the same race. Both men have finished on the podium at Lombardy in recent years and have enjoyed strong 2013 seasons.
Uran’s fellow Colombians Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) also have the aptitude to perform at Lombardy, as, of course, does double winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC). Now liberated of the rainbow jersey, it will be interesting to see if the Belgian is allowed more leeway from his rivals on Sunday.
While Nibali leads the home challenge, Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) also showcased his form with victory on the tough Superga finale at Milano-Torino on Wednesday, and he lines up alongside Michele Scarponi, who rode strongly for Italy at the Worlds. Meanwhile, Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida) and Ivan Basso (Cannondale) are looking to salvage some hope from their dispiriting campaigns.
Alberto Contador, Rafal Majka (Saxo-Tinkoff), Franco Pellizotti (Androni-Venezuela), Bauke Mollema (Belkin), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Cadel Evans (BMC) are also among those with designs on a strong showing in Lombardy, while Peter Sagan (Cannondale) is also set to line up for his first appearance at the ambient race of the falling leaves.
After setting out from Bergamo, the Tour of Lombardy tackles it first major obstacle, the Valico di Valcava, after 81 kilometres. From there, the race heads towards the shores of Lake Como, passing first over the Colle Brianza (126km) and then the wickedly steep Muro di Sormano (158km), re-introduced after a lengthy absence last year. While the front group reformed over the summit, the brief gaps that did open on the 1.9km-long climb’s 25% slopes were a reliable indicator of the contenders’ condition.
If conditions are wet on Sunday, the descent to Nesso is a potentially treacherous one – a crash there ended Philippe Gilbert’s challenge last year – but the final reckoning begins in earnest with the evocative Madonna del Ghisallo. When the riders ride past the chapel at the summit, they are just 46 kilometres from home, and the front group should be whittled down accordingly by the time it reaches the final climb of Villa Vergano.
3.2km in length and with slopes of 15%, the climb is just hard enough to separate the leaders, particularly given that they arrive at its base with some 230 kilometres already in their legs. From the top, it’s a 9km drop into Lecco, the town whose dramatic positioning on the shores of Lake Como is immortalised in the opening pages of Alessandro Manzoni’s 19th century novel, I Promessi Sposi.