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Longer, tougher Giro di Lombardia demands new tactics

It was significant that after winning Thursday’s Gran Piemonte race (the former Tour of Piedmont) for the second consecutive year, Belgian classics specialist Philippe Gilbert said this about the longer, tougher course for Saturday’s season-closing Giro di Lombardia (Tour of Lombardy): “Tomorrow I will look at the new section of the course, but what preoccupies me the most is the descent from the Colma di Sormano.”

The peloton climbs above Lake Como in 2009. | Graham Watson photo
The peloton climbs above Lake Como in 2009. | Graham Watson photo

Clearly, Gilbert is nervous that he might have trouble staying with the true climbers on the Sormano, a difficult new climb that organizer Angelo Zomegnan (who also runs the Giro d’Italia for RCS) has inserted into the 104th edition of Lombardia right after the race’s previously most difficult climb, the spectacular Madonna del Ghisallo.

This double-whammy, in effect, equates to 1,130 meters (3,707 feet) of vertical climbing in 20km, with a short respite in the middle. On that amount of uphill work, the pure climbers could put a minute or so into the all-arounders like Gilbert, a deficit that he’ll be hard-pressed to regain over the remaining 41km to the finish in Como.

That’s because the steep 13km descent from the Colma di Sormano, where riders like ace descender Vincenzo Nibali could gain even more time, is followed by 15km of tight, twisting roads alongside the lake into Como, where the riders face several sharp turns in the 5km of city streets before hitting the closing climb, the San Fermo della Battaglia.

It was on the 2.8km, 7-percent San Fermo that Gilbert played his cards brilliantly at last year’s Lombardia. After his then teammate Cadel Evans closed down aggressive moves on the early half of the narrow, winding climb, Gilbert waited to make his decisive attack on the steepest 10-percent pitch. Only Spain’s Samuel Sanchez could catch him before the descent to the lakeside in Como, where Gilbert just took the two-man sprint to win the then 242km race.

Only 16 riders were left in the mix before that final showdown. Expect a lot fewer to be in at the kill this Saturday because, besides the new Sormano climb, the Italian super-classic has been lengthened to 260km, with the start now in Milan.

Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Gilbert showed Thursday that he has maintained the good form he had at the Vuelta a España and word championships, but he’s still anxious to see the new route on his Friday reconnaissance ride. What he’ll find is that the Sormano climb itself is 9.4km long with an average grade of 6.6 percent; it bypasses the legendary Muro di Sormano (a 1.7km “wall” averaging 17 percent with a 25-percent kicker at the top) that another Giro organizer, the colorful Vincenzo Torriani, inserted into the Lombardy course in the early 1960s.

But Zomegnan’s innovative changes to the course will perhaps have a greater effect on the race than Torriani’s 50 years ago — the Muro was so steep that most of the riders walked it and the hill record was a painfully slow 9:40 (just 10.5 kph) set by world and Olympic champion Ercole Baldini in 1962. No one will be dismounting on Saturday, but the Sormano climb could well unhitch many riders’ chances of winning the so-called Race of the Falling Leaves.

Who can challenge Gilbert?

A long 2010 season may be about to end, but there are still a dozen or so men who have aspirations to win what many call the most beautiful classic. All the world’s best teams are competing, including Team RadioShack that initially was being denied a starting slot. That’s good news for the American squad, which is fielding three of its very best climbers, Jani Brajkovic, Chris Horner and Haimar Zubeldia.

Gilbert goes on the attack in 2009. | Graham Watson photo
Gilbert goes on the attack in 2009. | Graham Watson photo

Lombardy is a race in which Horner has always excelled (he was one of the men in the final selection last year), and with stronger team support than before on a course that better suits his abilities in his best-ever season, the evergreen Californian has to be one of Gilbert’s strongest challengers.

Even higher on the list of pre-race favorites is British-born Irishman Dan Martin of Garmin-Transitions, who this year has developed into one of the most explosive climbers in the peloton. Once he overcame allergy problems this spring, Martin, 24, enjoyed a break-out year. In the past three months, he has placed third at Italy’s five-day Brixia Tour, won the week-long Tour of Poland (including a brilliant solo win in a semi-mountain stage), won the Three Varesine Valleys classic in Italy and, last Saturday, placed second in the ultra-hilly Tour of Emilia.

In the uphill Emilia finish, an inspired Martin went to the front and blitzed a 14-man lead group in less than 2km; he was out-kicked in the last turn by defending champ Robert Gesink of Rabobank, while Italy’s Michele Scarponi was the only other rider to stay with Martin, taking third. If Martin is not too impatient — he attacked too early in last year’s Lombardia and ended up in eighth — and allows Garmin teammates like Tom Danielson and Peter Stetina to protect him until the crucial climbs, he should podium.

Gesink would have been the top Lombardy favorite, but he’s not starting; his father suffered a serious fall in a mountain bike race last Sunday so the young Dutchman returned to the Netherlands to be with him in the hospital.

In Gesink’s absence, Team Androni’s Scarponi and the next two Emilia finishers, Alexandr Kolobnev of Katusha and Nibali of Liquigas, have better chances of overcoming the less-experienced Martin. Scarponi can count on his co-leader Leonardo Bertagnolli (who was second to Gilbert on Thursday); Kolobnev has strong support in Spanish teammate Joaquim Rodriguez (who’s defending his overall No. 1 world ranking on Saturday), and their Italian colleague Filippo Pozzato (who placed fourth in Gran Piemonte) is also fancying his chances. As for Nibali, one of the strongmen at the worlds after winning the Vuelta, he has tireless team workers in Valerio Agnoli and Sylvester Szmyd.

On paper, Saxo Bank also has a powerful lineup, with top climbers Andy Schleck, Jakob Fuglsang, Richie Porte and Chris Anker Sørensen, but team leader Schleck hasn’t finished a race since he was pulled from the Vuelta for contravening team rules, so the Danish team’s best chance comes from Fuglsang — who was one of the best riders on the climbs in Emilia.

Perhaps the strongest team in Emilia was the second-tier Italian squad, Colnago-CSF, whose Domenico Pozzovivo, Gianluca Brambilla and Simone Stortoni all played prominent roles, with climber Pozzovivo placing sixth. The leader of another small Italian team with a chance of a top-10 finish this Saturday is Germany’s Patrick Sinkewitz of ISD-Neri, who’s resurrecting his career after a two-year doping suspension.

The 'race of the falling leaves' marks the end of a long season.
The 'race of the falling leaves' marks the end of a long season.

There are other individuals who could pull of a surprise in Lombardia. These include Sinkewitz’s ISD teammate Giovanni Visconti, who has taken first place in the European Calendar rankings for the second year; the young Colombian climber Rigoberto Uran of Caisse d’Épargne; the Dutchman Dries Devenyns of Quick Step (fifth on Thursday); and perhaps Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Olympic champion Sanchez, whose form is suspect but who knows how to rise to the big occasion.

One other rider, who didn’t compete in Emilia and pulled out of Gran Piemonte at the feed zone (as he always likes to do two days before Lombardia), has a big chance in the final classic. That would be the 2009 world champion, Cadel Evans of BMC Racing, who sacrificed his own chances to help then teammate Gilbert 12 months ago.

Who says Evans is a contender? Well, listen to what Gilbert said after he was asked Thursday who his main opponents would be this Saturday: “Evans and Kolobnev above all, then Nibali and Visconti.”

The big questions for Gilbert are 1) can he stay with climbers Martin, Scarponi, Nibali, Evans, Fuglsang and Pozzovivo on the Sormano, or 2) can he bridge to a potential lead group on the Sormano descent that he’s so anxious to see? But even should the 28-year-old Belgian favorite be in, say, a seven-man break that hits the San Fermo della Battaglia 8km from the finish, he won’t have a teammate like Evans to close down the climbers.

In that situation, a highly motivated Martin might well break out to become the first Irishman to win this splendid classic since Sean Kelly took the third of his three Tour of Lombardy titles in 1991.

Preliminary Start List


**** Martin, Nibali, Scarponi
*** Evans, Kolobnev, Pozzovivo
** Fuglsang. Pozzato, Visconti
* Devenyns, Sinkewitz, Sanchez, Uran

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