Another year and another reboot for the Tour of Lombardy, which has at times over the past decade managed to be both the most beautiful and most overlooked classic on the calendar. After a change of date in 2012 and a change of name - it has been rebranded as Il Lombardia in recent years - the race has been given a new route this time around, with the finale shifting from Lecco to Bergamo.
10 years ago, the Tour of Lombardy was the final event on the now-defunct World Cup calendar, and while the tactics engendered by that status didn’t exactly gladden the heart of the purists – think Michele Bartoli’s decision to ride for fourth place in 1997, for instance, or Paolo Bettini and Davide Rebellin’s man-marking in 2004 – it did confer an additional layer of intrigue upon the Race of the Falling Leaves.
The demise of the World Cup had the happy effects of divesting the Tour of Lombardy of the assorted calculations and quid pro quos that often blighted its finales and, generally speaking, led to a higher calibre of winner. It is instructive, for instance, that Paolo Bettini’s two victories (2005 and 2006) came once he no longer had a vertically striped jersey to defend along the shores of Lake Como.
The trade-off, however, was that the Tour of Lombardy’s very relevance was coming under increasing threat as the years passed. Placed three full weeks after the world championships, fewer and fewer of the stars of the peloton could be persuaded to extend their seasons by almost a month to line up, and even the freshly-minted rainbow jersey could not always be relied upon to make an appearance.
The solution, fittingly enough, came about by way of something of a quid pro quo. The UCI was desperate to carve out a niche for the Tour of Beijing as the final race on the WorldTour calendar, and RCS Sport needed to bolster its field. The solution? In 2012, the “Race of the Falling Leaves” shifted forwards from its traditional mid-October date to the weekend following the Worlds and billed itself as an immediate shot at redemption for those who missed out on the rainbow jersey seven days earlier.
Last year’s race tied in perfectly with that narrative, as Joaquim Rodriguez beat Alejandro Valverde into second place just one week after the two Spaniards had so spectacularly failed to dovetail their efforts in the closing kilometres of the world championships in Florence.
Yet for all the melodrama provided by that internecine battle, something was lacking. The date was right, the cast of characters was strong, but were they on a worthy stage? For the third time in three finishes in Lecco, the result was decided on the climb to Villa Vergano in the finale, despite the presence of the viciously steep Muro di Sormano with 100km remaining. For 2014, the Tour of Lombardy is handed a makeover.
Bergamo, of course, has previous as a Tour of Lombardy host. The race finished there between 1995 and 2003. Indeed, as in 2003 the race begins in Como this time around, although the parcours is significantly different to the one on which Michele Bartoli secured his second Lombardy win in as many years.
The alteration to the route means that the most recognisable aspects of the Lombardy route – the section by the shores of Lake Como and the climb to the chapel atop the Madonna del Ghisallo – take place in the opening hours of racing. Indeed, the Ghisallo comes after just 58 kilometres, and does little more than break up the lengthy preamble that constitutes the opening half of the race.
After the short Colle dei Pasta, the Colle Gallo (7.4km at 6%) with a shade under 100km to race heralds the beginning of real hostilities. It is followed immediately afterwards by the Passo di Ganda (9.2km at 7.3% with a maximum gradient of 15%), and the combination ought to force a significant selection.
Indeed, unlike the route of the past three years, there is scarcely a metre of flat in the final 100 kilometres or so, a development which – in theory at least – ought to lead to a less controlled race than the Lecco finale provided. The short but steep Bracca with 46km remaining could catch some unawares, though the Berbenno (5.5km at 5.3%) looks set to be a key climb in the finale.
As was the case during the Tour of Lombardy’s previous visits to Bergamo, the short, sharp cobbled climb to the old town, Bergamo Alta, offers the prospect of further fireworks at the death. The drop from the summit to the finish on Piazza Matteotti is just a shade over 3 kilometres and could provide a finale as breathless as last Sunday’s in Ponferrada.
World champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) makes his first appearance in the rainbow jersey and is clearly the man of the moment. The Pole seems equipped to win just about any one-day race he turns his mind to, but perhaps therein lies the rub for this weekend’s race: a new world champion faces a whirlwind of sudden obligations and it may come just too soon for Kwiatkowski. The last rainbow jersey to win in Lombardy was Bettini in 2006, and the last – indeed only – man to do so just a week after claiming the Worlds was Oscar Camenzind during his rich vein of form in 1998.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) lines up seeking a third successive victory at the Tour of Lombardy. While he had the Lecco finale down to a tee, it remains to be seen if he can repeat the feat here. If he or Katusha teammates Dani Moreno and Giampaolo Caruso are in the front group on the short climb to Bergamo Alto, they could prosper.
Philippe Gilbert (BMC) is another two-time winner of the event and despite entering the Worlds at something of a low ebb, he showed distinct signs of form in the finale in Ponferrada, powering the chase group in its forlorn pursuit of Michal Kwiatkowski. The endgame in Bergamo seems more reminiscent of the Como finale where Gilbert forged his wins in 2009 and 2010. He is joined in the BMC line-up by Tejay van Garderen and Cadel Evans, who is making his final appearance at the Tour of Lombardy.
Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) has been consistently in the hunt in Lombardy over the years without ever being rewarded and he would dearly love to end an ill-starred 2014 on a high note. Yet another crash ended his Worlds hopes last Sunday and he will not be lacking in motivation this weekend. Fabio Aru (Astana), Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Belisol) and Giovanni Visconti (Movistar) all made impressive cameos at the Worlds, while Rui Costa is on hand for his first race for Lampre without the rainbow jersey on his back.
The imminent demise of the Tour of Beijing means that from 2015, the Tour of Lombardy will be the final race on the WorldTour calendar. The two men still in the hunt for this year’s title will both be on the start line in Como.
Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) is currently defending a 14-point lead over Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and while the battle doesn’t quite capture headlines like Bartoli versus (the absent) Rolf Sorensen in the World Cup (or, in an earlier age, Sean Kelly versus Phil Anderson in the Super Prestige Pernod), it is an interesting subplot nonetheless.
One hopes, however, that each man views the Tour of Lombardy itself as the greater prize. Contador, for instance, has never won a major classic – the 2012 Milano-Torino remains the lone one-day victory of his career – and Sunday is a chance to amend that.