The climb of the Muro di Sormano did not ultimately decide the Tour of Lombardy – although the greasy descent would end Philippe Gilbert’s challenge – but by the time the curtain had fallen in Lecco, it turned out that its vertiginous slopes had quietly doled out a verdict all the same.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) looked the strongest on the 1.9km-long wall as his forcing caused a temporary split in the group of favourites, but with over 80 kilometres still to race, it was inevitable that the group would come back together. Perhaps emboldened by that effort, however, Rodriguez duly went on to take the spoils after making a rather more decisive break on the final climb to Villa Vergano in the final ten kilometres.
Buffeted by torrents of rain on the subsequent descent to the shores of Lake Como, Rodriguez held his nerve to hold off a chase group featuring Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) by 9 seconds to claim his second classic victory of the season, following his Flèche Wallonne triumph in April.
“For me, winning Lombardy in itself would have been a great win, but obviously when there are more strong riders, it adds value to the win,” Rodriguez said afterwards. “Alberto was very strong at the Worlds last week and in Milan-Turin, but it wasn’t just him, there were also riders like Nibali and Gilbert in the race.”
Entering the race, Rodriguez knew that he needed to finish 9th or higher to move ahead of Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and into the final overall lead in the WorldTour standings (neither rider will make the long haul to the last event, the Tour of Beijing.)
But while the Tour of Lombardy was so often the site of last-minute calculations and combines when it was the final leg of the World Cup – and indeed, the old Super Prestige competition – the WorldTour has as yet failed to fire imaginations or alliances. Rodriguez simply raced to win, and the WorldTour title – his second, after 2010 – arrived with little fanfare.
“It’s hard to know if I was the strongest rider over the course of the year, and Wiggins was certainly the best stage race rider,” said Rodriguez, who finished on the podium of both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España. “All I can say is that 2012 has certainly seen the best Joaquim Rodriguez yet.”
The best Joaquim Rodriguez yet still fell short in the grand tours in 2012, however. At the Giro, he lost the pink jersey to Ryder Hesjedal on the final day in Milan, while Rodriguez also led the Vuelta deep into the final week before a jours sans at Fuente De handed red to Contador.
Asked what he needed to improve over the winter in order to take that final step, Rodriguez cracked a wry smile. “The time trial, as always,” he said. “I’ve improved an awful lot in that area this year, but I still have to work a lot in the wind tunnel over the winter to make sure that what I’ve done to date doesn’t go to waste. In the mountains, on the other hand, I think I can compete with the strongest, and sometimes I’m the strongest myself.”
Rodriguez’s status as world number one and the year’s most consistent rider in both grand tours and classics was underlined by his Lombardy triumph, but he admitted that the win was unlikely to break the deadlock in negotiations over an increase when his current deal expires at the end of 2013.
“It doesn’t reinforce anything,” Rodriguez said bluntly. “They have their thoughts and I have mine. In any case, I’ll still be there next year, but if they don’t change their thinking, I mightn’t be there beyond that.”
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Barry Ryan is European Editor at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.