Il Lombardia 2021 – Preview

Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) at the 2019 Il Lombardia
Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) at the 2019 Il Lombardia (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

Forty years ago this month, the late Gianni Mura lamented the dearth of star names on the start line of Il Lombardia in an article entitled ‘The cycling that eats its children.’ In October 1981, at the end of a long and wearying campaign, men like Tour de France champion Bernard Hinault, defending champion Fons De Wolf and World Champion Freddy Maertens all decided to forgo the Race of the Falling Leaves and finish their seasons early, and Mura saw little reason to pretend that the final Monument of the year had a field worthy of its history.

“The Giro di Lombardia has never had such a mown down field of participants,” Mura wrote in the pages of La Repubblica. “Those of us who continue to love it are hoping for a great Giro di Lombardia, but it’s not easy to sing ‘Aida’ with so little breath.”

Four decades on, there is no such issue for RCS Sport, who have attracted a full complement of A-list names for what promises to be a full-throated finale to the WorldTour calendar, with the world champion and winners of two of the year’s three Grand Tours all on the start line in Como on Saturday – and all in with a shout of landing victory in Bergamo, to boot.

The contenders

This week alone, Vuelta a España winner Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) ran effortlessly through the scales with victories at the Giro dell’Emilia and Milano-Torino. The manner of those victories suggests Roglič will be the man to beat on Saturday, but, mercifully for his rivals, the finish line is not an uphill one. There is room for invention, even if Roglič will be able to rely on the support of men like George Bennett and Jonas Vingegaard.

Milano-Torino was Julian Alaphilippe’s first race since retaining his world title, and he rode with the air of a man carefully minding his voice for the final curtain call on Saturday. The Frenchman also has the luxury of forming part of a strong triumvirate at Deceuninck-QuickStep, where João Almeida signalled his condition with solid displays at the Giro dell’Emilia and Milano-Torino, and where Remco Evenepoel continued to do Remco Evenepoel things.

Beneath a deluge at the Coppa Bernocchi on Monday, Evenepoel unleashed the latest in a litany of striking – and successful – solo efforts, and, as ever, he looks certain to form a central part of the narrative in Lombardy. It is worth noting that this will be only the second Monument appearance of his career. The first, at last year’s August edition of Il Lombardia, ended with a season-ending crash on the descent of the Muro di Sormano, which does not feature on the revised route this time out.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Evenepoel dismissed the idea that his crash on the Muro di Sormano meant that he had a score to settle at this year’s Il Lombardia. He may, however, feel he has a point to prove in the wake of the polemics that followed his and Wout van Aert’s co-existence on the Belgian national team this season. Whether in the service of Alaphilippe or in pursuit of his ambition, it would be a surprise if Evenepoel did not mark Il Lombardia in some profound way.

Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) is looking to become the first reigning Tour de France champion to win Il Lombardia since Bernard Hinault in 1979, and the first man to win this race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the same year since Moreno Argentin in 1987. The Slovenian warmed up for the challenge with fourth at Milano-Torino, and he will have Davide Formolo and Marc Hirschi for support on Saturday.

Another team with strength in numbers is Ineos Grenadiers, with Adam Yates leading the line after his fine showing on Superga on Wednesday. The Briton will have Gianni Moscon, Eddie Dunbar and Tao Geoghegan Hart for company. Elsewhere, Bahrain Victorious line up with Jack Haig, Gino Mäder, Mikel Landa and CRO Tour winner Stevie Williams.

Trek-Segafredo field two past winners in Vincenzo Nibali and Bauke Mollema, while 2018 winner Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), 2016 winner Esteban Chaves (BikeExchange), together with Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic), Rigobert Urán (EF Education-Nippo), Neilson Powless (EF Education-Nippo), Simon Yates (BikeExchange), Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) will also be trying to make a mark.

Saturday’s race will also mark the final outing of Dan Martin’s (Israel Start-Up Nation) fine professional career. In his 14 seasons in the peloton, the Irishman won stages at all three Grand Tours, but perhaps the finest victory of his career came in Bergamo in the autumn of 2014, when he had the sharpness of mind and freshness of legs to pre-empt the sprint and beat Valverde and Rui Costa to the line at Il Lombardia.

At 35 years of age and having won at Sega di Ala on this year’s Giro d’Italia, Martin appeared to have the physical capacity to continue at a high level for several more seasons. However, like Tony Martin, Fabio Aru, his cousin Nicolas Roche and others, he understandably reasoned that the demands of this sport – demands of time and headspace as much of as body – were becoming too much. 

In 2021, for better or for ill, every race counts. The start list here is testament to that. There may be more stardust sprinkled across this edition of Il Lombardia than in 1981, but now as then, cycling continues to ask for extremes from its young.

The route

After four successive finishes in Como, Il Lombardia reverses its start and finish towns in 2021, with the 239km race beginning on the shores of Lake Como and finishing in Bergamo on Viale. Yet while the start and finish may change, the core ingredients remain, with the gruppo facing more than 4,500 metres of climbing amid the fading light and falling leaves of the northern Italian Autumn – a welcome return to the familiar after 2020's pandemic-enforced, midsummer edition.

The day’s first ascent on this occasion is the Il Lombardia’s most enduring, the Madonna del Ghisallo, which comes after 38km and should provide a platform for the day’s early break to forge clear. Next up is the ascent to Roncola Alta (9.4km at 6.6 per cent), while the climb to Berbenno (6.8km at 4.6 per cent) comes with a little over 100km remaining.

The longest stretch of climbing comes after the race leaves San Pellegrino Terme, when the gruppo climbs to Dossena (11km at 6.2 per cent) and then takes in the briefest of descents before climbing to the highest point of the race Zambla Alta, which lies 1257 metres above sea level. The climb to Zambla Alta is 9.5km at 3.5 per cent but with long, double-digit stretches near the summit, and this section of the race ought to provide a very significant selection ahead of the finale.

The following Passo di Ganda looks set to be the day’s key ascent. The stiff climb is 9.2km at an average of 7.3 per cent, and the gradient hits 15 per cent near the summit, which comes 32km from the finish. A technical descent composed of some 19 hairpins follows, although the flat and fast run towards Bergamo provides some faint opportunity of regrouping.

The finale, meanwhile, offers one more obvious springboard for attackers, as the route climbs to Bergamo’s old town by way of the short and sharp Colle Aperto. It’s a 3km drop from the summit to the finish line, meaning that the first man to the top has every chance of landing Il Lombardia victory. Evenepoel reckoned few, if any, could match his teammate Alaphilippe on its slopes. The world champion, for his part, was wary: “Yes, but the problem is the long climbs before it." The route changes, but Il Lombardia's central tenets remain in place.

The teams

  • AG2R Citroën
  • Alpecin-Fenix
  • Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec
  • Arkéa-Samsic
  • Astana-Premier Tech
  • Bahrain Victorious
  • Bardiani CSF Faizanè
  • Bora-Hansgrohe
  • Cofidis
  • Deceuninck-QuickStep
  • EF Education-Nippo
  • Eolo-Kometa Cycling Team
  • Groupama-FDJ
  • Ineos Grenadiers
  • Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert
  • Israel Start-Up Nation
  • Jumbo-Visma
  • Lotto Soudal
  • Movistar
  • Qhubeka NextHash
  • Team BikeExchange
  • Team DSM
  • Trek-Segafredo
  • UAE Team Emirates

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