Stars line up for final showdown at Il Lombardia – Preview

It's called Il Lombardia these days, but what was known to English speakers as the Tour of Lombardy for so long remains one of the sport's oldest and most romantic of one-day races, enjoying the poetic nickname of 'The Race of the Falling Leaves'.

Autumn wouldn't seem like the ideal time for one of the best races of the season, but the scenery – with the race based around the stunning Lake Como, which includes the climb of the magnificent Ghisallo – as well as the opportunity to see the new world champion in their fresh white jersey with the rainbow stripes, which in this case is Movistar's Alejandro Valverde, makes this a must-see event for fans, whether on the roadside or at home in front of the TV.

While many of the big names have already drawn their seasons to a close by this point, either through fatigue or injury, for others the chance to notch up a Monument on their palmarès is too good an opportunity to miss.

The contenders

The race was first held in 1905, and it's none other than cycling legend Fausto Coppi who holds the record for the most number of wins at the race, with five.

While Great Britain has dominated this season's Grand Tours, with Sky's Chris Froome winning the Giro d'Italia, his teammate Geraint Thomas taking the Tour de France title, and Mitchelton-Scott's Simon Yates coming up with the goods at the Vuelta a España, Tom Simpson remains the only British winner of Lombardy, having taken the title in 1965.

The Irish, meanwhile, can look back fondly on Sean Kelly's wins in 1983, 1985 and 1991, while Dan Martin finally managed to land his own Lombardy win in 2014, having crashed on the last corner the year before when in the frame for a podium spot, and having had to settle for fourth place instead.

Martin (UAE Team Emirates) will be back, along with defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), who also won in 2015. Team Sky's Gianni Moscon – third last year – looks like a good bet for the win this year, having been on flying form over the past month, but there's no start for Quick-Step's Julian Alaphilippe, who has decided to end his season, citing exhaustion.

Valverde – second to Martin in 2014 – will be hoping he can pull off a win in that new rainbow jersey, while Mitchelton-Scott are led by 2018 Vuelta champion Simon Yates and his twin brother Adam.

Fifth in Lombardy last year, Groupama-FDJ's Thibaut Pinot will need to be marked closely, especially as he won Wednesday's Milano-Torino and finished second at the Tre Valli Varesine on Tuesday, demonstrating his strong form.

The route

The riders leave Bergamo on Saturday with 241 kilometres separating them and the finish in Como.

The first serious climb – the Colle Gallo – comes inside the first 50 kilometres, and could provide the launch pad for an early breakaway.

However, it's not until the race passes through the beautiful town of Bellagio on the shores of Lake Como, and reaches the Ghisallo, with just over 60 kilometres to race, that the race is likely to truly come alive.

The initial ramps feature hairpin bends and 14 per cent gradients, but whoever reaches the iconic Madonna del Ghisallo chapel at the top of the climb will still have a lot more work to do.

After a six-kilometre descent, it's straight on to the Colma di Sormano, which include the infamous Muro di Sormano – the Sormano Wall – section: two kilometres in length, at an average of 15 per cent, but touching gradients of 27 per cent, which in the past has sometimes seen riders reduced to walking.

A mercifully long, yet dangerous, descent, as Quick-Step's Laurens De Plus found out last year, down to Nesso follows, but there's one more sting in the tail in the shape of the Civiglio – just over four kilometres in length, at an average gradient of 10 per cent, and a maximum of 14 per cent – which comes inside the final 20 kilometres.

The riders also face a final, albeit slightly gentler, 1.5km climb up the San Fermo della Battaglia with five kilometres to go, but by then the leaders will have the bit between their teeth. The subsequent descent towards central Como takes them into the final kilometre, where it flattens out for the dash to the finish line.

Il Lombardia is truly a tough race, and comes after what for most will have been a long season. Whoever wins on Saturday will have thoroughly deserved their victory.

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