After more than eight months of intense racing, the European season final winds down this weekend, with Saturday’s Il Lombardia the final one-day WorldTour Classic of the 2017 season.
The sprinters will be in action at Paris-Tours on Sunday and the WorldTour rolls on with the Tour of Turkey and the Tour of Guangxi but many of the biggest names in the peloton will pin on a race number for the final time on Saturday for the 247km race though the Lombardy hills and lakes, and iconic falling leaves.
New world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) has already put away his rainbow jersey and ended his season but the Il Lombardia start list includes some of the biggest names in the peloton.
Last year, Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) became the first Colombian rider to Il Lombardia winner after beating Diego Rosa and compatriot Rigoberto Uran in a sprint in Bergamo. Chaves crashed hard at last Saturday’s Giro dell’Emilia, fracturing his shoulder and meaning he will not compete on Saturday. But Britain’s Adam Yates wears number one for Orica-Scott, with 2015 winner Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Giro d’Italia winner Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) and numerous other contenders and outsiders on the start list and looking for a major victory in Como to end their season on a high.
The ever-changing Il Lombardia route
The route of Il Lombardia has often changed during its long history but one constant remains the hilly profile and spectacular view across northern Lombardy offered from the summits and the many corners overlooking Lake Como.
Last year’s race started in Como and ended in Bergamo after the steep, narrow climb up to Bergamo Alta. As part of an agreement with race organiser RCS Sport, the route has again been flipped, with Bergamo hosting the start and Como hosting the finish, just as it did for several years until 2015.
The Il Lombardia profile means it always a race for the climbers. It is arguably cycling’s most difficult Monument, with over 4,000 metres of climbing and far longer climbs than those of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Il Lombardia has always attracted the Grand Tour riders but also suits the hilly Classics riders.
The twisting, often wet and leaf-covered country roads mean that descending is a vital skill for any contender, as is endurance and tactical nous. A strong team is also needed to chase the early attacks and to position the protected on the fast approach to the climbs that characterise the finale.
This year the first ascent of the race comes after what will probably be a fast first hour of racing as riders try to get in the early break. The Colle Gallo rears upwards after 48 kilometres, with the Colle Brianza after 100 kilometres. They are a taste of what is to come as the race heads northeast, deep into the Lombardy hills.
The decisive climbs come in the last 70 kilometres of the race, with the Madonna del Ghisallo, the Muro di Sormano, the Civiglio and finally the San Fermo della Battaglia overlooking Como.
The 8.6-kilometre climb up from the right heel of Lake Como to Madonna del Ghisallo is one of the most famous climbs in Italy thanks to the many visit of Il Lombardia and especially because the historic cyclist’s chapel at the summit which is packed with jerseys, bikes, photos and memories of deceased riders. It has been climbed in every edition of Il Lombardia since 1919 and thousands of local tifosi head to the summit for a special Saturday ride.
The chapel bells are rung when the race passes by and symbolically mark the start of the race. The climb kicks up in two parts and comes with 64 kilometres to go. It is often where the early break of the day is reeled in and where the first attacks for victory are made.
This year the Madonna del Ghisallo is followed by the Muro di Sormano. The ‘Wall of Surmano’ was part of Il Lombardia in the sixties and seventies but was avoided until recently because it was considered simply too hard for a professional bike race.
The Muro is preceded by 5.5 per cent climb to the village of Sormano, with the actual zigzagging Muro kicking up at 15 per cent for a further 1.9 kilometres. The fight for position on the easier section will be as intense an effort as that of the double-digit climb that is decorated with gradients and phrases of encouragement stencilled on the road.
Riders will curse its gradient but with the Muro di Sormano coming just 50 kilometres from the finish, the favourites will have to be well positioned over the top, ready for any attacks. Many of the peloton will suffer on the Muro and so their race and their season will end there. One final race awaits: in a team car to the Milan airports for an early flight home.
The Civiglio climb is far lesser known than the Madonna del Ghisallo and the Muro di Sormano but arguably plays a more important role in the hilly finale of Il Lombardia.
It is 4.2 kilometres long and twists and turns up the eastern hill overlooking Como. The finish is just 17 kilometres away and so the Civiglio could spark a huge selection against the riders left in the race.
In 2015 Vincenzo Nibali was in the group of eight or so leading riders over the top and then attacked on the descent, tucking low over his bike and using his well-known bike skills to carve out a lead on the chasers. He was never seen again and won alone in Como.
The fast descent of the Civiglio launches the riders into central Como and they pass just 400 metres from the finish. However they must face the 2.7-kilometre San Fermo della Battaglia climb on the western side of Como. It comes after 240 kilometres of hard racing – and after a long, hard season.
In the last ten editions of Il Lombardia, seven riders have won Il Lombardia alone. The likes of Philippe Gilbert, Joaquim Rodriguez and Damiano Cunego have attacked on the San Fermo della Battaglia climb before winning alone or in a very small group.
We can expect a similar scenario on Saturday, with forecast for a cool but dry day of racing without the risk of crashes on the falling leaves of the Lombardy hills.
Rating the contenders
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) is the bookmakers' favourite for a second Il Lombardia victory but there are a host of other riders who could match him on the climbs, hold his wheel on the descents and then perhaps beat him a sprint in Como.
Nibali opted to miss Thursday’s Milano-Torino race and instead completed a final recon ride of Saturday’s race route. He showed his form at Tuesday’s Tre Valli Varesine race and understandably wanted to be as fresh as possible for his final race of the 2017 season and his final big goal.
The Bahrain-Merida team will try to dominate the finale of the race for Nibali but Team Sky, Quick-Step Floors, Team Sunweb and Cannondale-Drapac will surely be well represented in the front group too.
Team Sky and Quick-Step floors are fighting for the number one spot in the WorldTour team ranking and so both will field strong teams and perhaps aim to place riders in the top 10 as well as race to win.
Quick-Step Floors as Julian Alaphilippe, Dan Martin and Philippe Gilbert as leaders, plus Gianluca Brambilla and Bob Jungels. Team Sky has selected Michal Kwiatkowski, Wout Poels, Diego Rosa, Gianni Moscon, Sergio Henao Mikel Nieve and Mikel Landa to score as many UCI ranking points as possible.
Tom Dumoulin leads Team Sunweb with support from Wilco Kelderman, Sam Oomen, Warren Barguil, Simon Geschke and even Michael Matthews.
Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) showed he will be a threat with his superb solo win at Milano-Torino. Uran has finished third three times at Il Lombardia and keen to complete his successful season in style. He can count on the support of Hugh Carthy, Davide Formolo, Davide Villella and Alberto Bettiol.
Other names to watch are Fabio Aru (Astana), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Adam Yates (Orica-Scott), Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates), Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) as the Colombian tries to end his disappointing season on a high note.
Fabio Aru will ride for Astana for the last time before an expected move to UAE Team Emirates. The Italian national champion showed some late season form at Milano-Torino, even if he admitted it might not be enough for the testing 247-kilometre Il Lombardia route.
Pinot will have the support David Gaudu, who impressed at Milano-Torino, while Alexander Geniez (AG2R-La Mondiale), Egan Bernal (Androni Giocattoli), Nicolas Roche (BMC), Steve Cummings (Dimension Data) and Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) – who talked about his hopes and the race in the latest Cyclingnews Recon Ride podcast with Dane Cash – are others who could feature.
Cyclingnews will have full live coverage of Il Lombardia on Saturday, with a detailed race report, photo gallery and exclusive news and interviews from the race.