The season has once again flown by, and this Saturday sees the fifth and final Monument of the year – Il Lombardia – pit some of the world's biggest names against each other during the hilly Italian one-day Classic.
In an almost carbon-copy of the situation at this point last year, Deceuninck-QuickStep's Julian Alaphilippe has already ended his 2019 campaign, effectively burnt out after another season of success. The Frenchman would once again have been one of the favourites for this year's race, and said that he's disappointed to not be lining up in Bergamo. Second place at the 2017 race behind Bahrain-Merida's Vincenzo Nibali will, for now, have to remain his best finish, but 'the race of the falling leaves' will surely be in his sights once more next year.
Riders to watch
Instead, it's the usual crowd of past winners – Nibali, UAE Team Emirates' Dan Martin and Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck-QuickStep), plus this year's Tour de France and Vuelta a España champions, Egan Bernal (Team Ineos) and Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) – that we're likely to see taking on Lombardy's stunning climbs, and each other, over the 243km route.
It's truly a Classic for Grand Tour riders, and it would delight fans if Bernal and Roglič were to go head-to-head for the win in Como. It had had looked likely at one point that Movistar's Richard Carapaz – winner of this year's Giro d'Italia – would also line up; alas, it isn't to be, although two out of three ain't bad.
Bernal has best finishes at Il Lombardia of 13th in 2017 and 12th last year – the only two times he's ridden it – while Roglič has also only ridden it twice, less successfully. However, the Slovenian is the form rider of the moment, having taken wins at both the Giro dell'Emilia and the Tre Valli Varesine in this past week, and so has to start as the favourite, even when up against the more experienced past winners.
There's no Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) to defend his crown. The Frenchman hasn't raced since pulling out of the Tour de France with an injured hip, and, while now recovered, he's decided to focus on resting and then hitting his winter training hard in order to try to make 2020 the year he wins the Tour – and possibly Il Lombardia again.
In his absence, Roglič should expect some stiff competition from two-time victor Nibali – who won in 2015 and 2017 – while it also opens the door for Nibali's now Bahrain-Merida teammate Dylan Teuns who last year, riding for BMC, led home an elite group that included Lotto Soudal's Tim Wellens, Ion Izagirre (Astana) and Bora-Hansgrohe's Rafal Majka, all of whom will fancy their chances this year.
Gilbert – who won Lombardia back in 2009 and 2010 – could also be dangerous, providing he's recovered sufficiently from his crash at the World Championships road race in Yorkshire at the end of last month, while 2016 winner Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott) showed glimpses of his old self with 14th place at Emilia last weekend.
Martin is still looking for his first win of the season, but the Irishman has an enviable record at Il Lombardia, which he won in 2014 and has finished in the top 10 at on four other occasions.
It's also one of the few races that continues to elude Movistar's Alejandro Valverde, who finished 11th last year, but whose best finish there is second, which he achieved in both 2013 – behind compatriot Joaquim Rodriguez – and 2014, when he was beaten by Martin.
Valverde demonstrated his good form when he finished second behind EF Education First's Michael Woods at Milano-Torino on Wednesday, and the Canadian also has to be considered a contender for Saturday's race.
The 2019 route is all but unchanged from last year, with the riders covering 243km versus 241km in 2018. Those extra couple of kilometres come courtesy of the return of the climb of San Fermo di Battaglia at the finish of the race, which hasn't featured since 2017, and makes an already tricky finish that bit tougher.
The Colle Gallo, just 50km into the race, provides the first real test, with riders looking for a day out at the front of the race likely to attack on its slopes. The big-hitters, however, are likely to keep their powder dry until the stunning lakeside town of Bellagio, with some 60km left to race, signifying the start of the Madonna del Ghisallo, on which they'll race around hairpin bends and 14 per cent gradients to the famous chapel at the summit.
From there, it's quickly on to the Muro di Sormano – the Sormano Wall – section of the Colma di Sormano climb, where the slopes touch 27 per cent and attract the most vociferous tifosi, who take the opportunity to encourage their heroes over the top.
It's then a long, dangerous descent back down to the lakeside, which the riders follow until turning inland once more for the four-kilometre climb of the Civiglio with 20km left to race. If that hasn't sorted out a winner, then the return of the 1.5km-long San Fermo di Battaglia with five kilometres to go should prove decisive before the descent to the finish in Como.
While many riders will see Il Lombardia as an opportunity to grab the big win that has perhaps eluded them this season, there are at least as many who are looking forward to a well-deserved rest before recommencing their winter training.
It makes for a smaller, elite group that will likely battle it out for the honours in Como, with the likes of Nibali, Roglič, Bernal, Gilbert, Valverde and Martin some of the most likely riders to look out for as the race reaches its crescendo.
Cyclingnews will have live text coverage of the race, with news and photos from inside the race as it happens. We're also your go-to place for results, photos and highlights once the race is over.
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