Gilbert the man to beat as chapter closes for Tour of Lombardy

Saturday sees the curtain fall not just on the 2011 season, but on one of cycling’s most evocative traditions, as the Tour of Lombardy takes place on its usual October date for the final time. While the route of the Race of the Falling Leaves has changed regularly throughout its history (and does so again this year), the image of the peloton negotiating the rosy-hued shores of Lake Como in low Autumnal sunshine has remained a steadfast fixture in cycling’s collective consciousness from generation to generation.

From next season, however, the classic shifts forward to late September, before the leaves have even turned to brown in northern Italy, and the honour of bringing the WorldTour calendar to a close is instead bestowed upon the nascent Tour of Beijing. While the UCI’s efforts to spread the gospel of cycling to outposts beyond the Old Continent are justly encouraged, a worrying side effect of such evangelization is that the underlying fabric of the sport risks being unravelled in the process.

No matter, the riders lining up in Milan on Saturday morning will ride the 241km to Lecco unfettered by the burden of the race’s glorious past, even if one of their number can write his own chapter in history. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) has enjoyed a season-long run of victories that harks back to rather more sepia-tinted eras, and he can crown his year of grace by joining Fausto Coppi and Alfredo Binda in the record books as the only men to win three consecutive Tours of Lombardy.

The route

After seven years in Como, the finish of the Tour of Lombardy moves to Lecco, a picturesque town on the southeastern branch of Lake Como, for the first time in its 106-year history. Famed as the setting for Alessandro Manzoni’s classic nineteenth-century novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), Lecco is signed up to host the finish for the next two years, and is also set to welcome a stage of the Giro d’Italia in 2012.

While a new race finish necessitates a new route, the 2011 edition will still feature most of the archetypal features one associates with the race, namely tumbling leaves, long climbs and sweeping descents along the shores of Lake Como. Like last year, the Tour of Lombardy gets under way from the centre of Milan, in the shadow of the Palazzo Lombardia, with a long neutralised section bringing the peloton northwards out of the city.

Rather than heading directly for Lake Como, however, the route branches off to the east, towards the climb of Valcava (78.4km), near Bergamo, the first major obstacle of the day. At 11.7km with an average gradient of 8%, the Valcava gets steeper closer to the summit, and the 17% slopes near the top are sure to create some early ripples in the peloton.

A lengthy descent takes the riders towards Lake Como, with the short Colle Brianza (122km) unlikely to cause any great problems. Next up is the rather stiffer Colma di Sormano, however, which arrives after 155km of racing. Though the route avoids the steep, narrow road that featured in the 1950s, the climb still announces the commencement of real hostilities; 9.5km long at an average of 6.6%, it should see the contenders begin to test one another.

The storied Madonna del Ghisallo follows shortly afterwards. Always the emotional centrepiece of the Tour of Lombardy, the climb has an additional tactical significance this year, as the race passes the famous chapel at its summit with just 46km still to race. As ever, the 14% slopes at the foot of the 8.5km climb are the greatest difficulty, but the brief descent and final kick up towards the chapel might well offer escapees a platform to forge clear.

A rapid descent takes the bunch back to the shores of Lake Como and the run-in to the climax in Lecco, but there is one more twist in the finale. The 3km-long kick up to Villa Vergano boasts gradients touching 15% near the summit, and is a natural springboard for attackers, with the finish a mere 9km away.

The contenders

One name looms above all others at the Tour of Lombardy, and the new route will do little to upset Philippe Gilbert’s chances. Indeed, the short, sharp Villa Vergano appears ideally suited to the Belgian’s punchy characteristics, and in his spring-summer form, Gilbert would be irresistible on the climb. Although he disappointed at the world championships, Gilbert showed signs of life at Paris-Tours and will be looking to give his season a finale in keeping with its tenor to date.

A man chasing a fourth Tour of Lombardy win is Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD). The Italian enjoyed something of a renaissance over the summer and declared the classic to be his main objective for the end of the season, and he is joined by Michele Scarponi, second in the rain-soaked edition of twelve months ago.

A combination of greasy roads and fallen leaves saw Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) slide out of contention on the descent of the Colma di Sormano last year, but he should be in contention again in 2011. After a season high on consistency but low on big wins, Nibali will be keen to put on a show, and he will have the support of the less explosive Ivan Basso. Other home challengers include Italian champion Giovanni Visconti (in his final outing for Farnese-Neri) and the diminutive Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago-CSF Inox).

Perhaps the greatest threat to Gilbert’s hegemony will come from Spanish duo Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Joaquim Rodriugez (Katusha), however. The latter will be particularly enthusiastic about the presence of the Villa Vergano climb ahead of the finish, while Vuelta a España winner Juan José Cobo (Geox-TMC) will also be on hand.

Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) was an aggressive performer here last year, and it will be interesting to see what effect his strong Vuelta showing has had on his confidence, while Ireland’s Dan Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) is in a similar situation and has a penchant for winning on Italian roads to boot. Though much earlier in his development, French hope Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) is another man with the characteristics to shine in a race that has often seen young riders get their first fleeting taste of life at cycling's top table.

Regardless of the date of the Tour of Lombardy in the future, one hopes that tradition, at least, is one that endures.

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