It’s time for the wonderfully nicknamed ‘Race of the falling leaves’. The Italian classic brings the curtain down on the World Tour and gives star riders one last opportunity to make an impression on the UCI rankings. A resolute Vincenzo Nibali used the Monument to save his season last time out but won’t return this year to defend his title.
This year’s route is much changed – significantly harder – and should give Nibali’s replacement as Astana number one – Fabio Aru – the chance to save his season in similar fashion. The Madonna del Ghisallo arrives in the first half of the race before the Valcava takes riders to the route’s highest point with nearly 100km remaining. The Selvino is the last of three ‘shark’s teeth’ tackled in the second half of the race before the final climb – the Bergamo Alta – is crested with just 3km to go. It’s short, steep and cobbled, and will prise apart the surviving contenders. The finish returns to Bergamo for the first time since 2014 but the preceding 240km are far harder this time around.
Lombardia can feel like an add-on to the springtime Monuments. Whilst most fans can rattle off the recent winners of Roubaix and Flanders, Lombardia can get forgotten as the season winds down. It’s a race made primary target by precious few. Lombardia is balanced finely between a race for puncheurs and one for climbing specialists – with the quantity of uphill road in this year’s edition it’s clear which group of riders are set to profit.
The race is loved by the host nation. With the Coppa Sabatini, Giro dell’Emilia and the fantastic Milano-Torino on the run-up to Lombardia, the transition to autumn has a distinctly Italian feel. Nevertheless, Lombardia’s World Tour status and high UCI points guarantees a multitude of leading riders will contest Saturday’s race. This year’s World Championships will be a sprinters affair meaning any non-sprinter carrying form will be giving their all to Lombardia.
Plenty of riders are ticking the right boxes and we learnt a lot about form on the Superga at Milano-Torino. Eventual winner Miguel Angel Lopez looked lively whilst Daniel Moreno and Diego Ulissi rode well and will be dangerous on the downhill finish in Bergamo. Cannondale pair Michael Woods and Rigoberto Uran looked strong but will need things to fall their way in this tactically challenging race – neither has claimed a victory this year and the boys in green struggle to take control. Romain Bardet and Warren Barguil also looked strong and will be hoping Saturday’s climbs are selective – neither needs to be asked twice to attack.
There’s an ample number of contenders but a few riders have taken my fancy. First up is the obvious in Fabio Aru. Astana have a penchant for Italian races and their squad looks super strong. They bring a number of threatening riders and they’ll have the most cards to play in the race’s finale. However, no number of riders will change the fact that Aru is not yet a one day specialist. His recent results have impressed – in particular his rides at the Olympic and European road races – but he might not be ready to land a monument. The cobbled kick in Lombardia will not be best suited and the Sardinian may need to be the solo leader by this point of the race.
The second rider I like the look of is Diego Ulissi. 8th in Emilia, 2nd in Varesine and 5th in Torino constitutes a brilliant approach and there’s no doubting Ulissi’s ability on home soil. It’s easy to say Ulissi will be out-climbed on this testing route but he has been stronger than ever this year involved in breakaways on the toughest mountains of the Giro d’Italia. The likes of Astana, Movistar and Ag2r will sort to eliminate him on the San Salvatore – or at the very least by the top of the Selvino. If he survives, I make him favourite.
It’s difficult to imagine any one day race without a Team Sky threat – even if they don’t win as many as they’d like. There’s an argument to be made for Mikel Landa, but the far more explosive Wout Poels looks their most likely winner. The Dutchman may have peaked at July’s Tour – disappointing in Rio the following month – but a magnificent performance in Dartmouth at the Tour of Britain served as a reminder of his winning ability. I went for him at the Olympics and I’ll be backing him once more.
Formerly led by the likes of Domenico Pozzovivo and Rinaldo Nocentini, Ag2r have always had a presence in Lombardy but could finally have a winner in their ranks by the name of Romain Bardet. The Frenchman’s twinned his liveliness with strong legs this season and has a team capable of rivalling Astana’s total control. Bardet should enjoy the harder climbs and is also one of the leading descenders. Like Aru, he’ll probably have to win solo. Teammate Alexis Vuillermoz has the ability to make the top ten if not sacrificed early on in the race. I also like Jan Bakelants as an outsider, but it’s difficult to picture him out-manoeuvring the leading climbers.
Two riders with good results at Lombardia are Alejandro Valverde and Dan Martin. The route would be perfect for a fully fit and firing Valverde but the usually tireless Spaniard may finally have reached his limit. Martin has always been one of the punchiest climbers in the peloton but a brilliant Tour de France suggests he won’t be afraid of the new, harder climbs and a second Lombardia win isn’t unrealistic. A longer shot is his Etixx teammate Gianluca Brambilla; he’s been brilliant all season and won’t be dropped early on.
Final prediction? The route looks slightly too hard for Ulissi – Astana will destroy things early on. Bardet wins, Poels takes second and Valverde third. No Italians on the podium this year but Aru and Brambilla will make the top ten.