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Fabio Aru is one of several favorites heading into...

Preview: Aru, Rodriguez seek Lombardia win

Saturday's Il Lombardia will feature two new climbs as organizers look to mix things up at the "Race of the Falling Leaves."

MILAN (AFP) — A host of challengers, including fellow Italian Fabio Aru and Spain’s former two-time champion Joaquin Rodriguez, will saddle up looking to snatch Vincenzo Nibali’s crown at Il Lombardia on Saturday.


But to do so, they would do well to remember if, and how, they raced the 2014 edition.

Astana’s Nibali, who is still recovering from a broken collarbone in a crash at the Olympics, won his maiden Lombardia crown in Como just outside Milan last year. He won’t be there to defend his title this weekend.

But the organizers’ decision to alternate the start and finish towns between Bergamo and Como for 2014-2017 means this year’s “Race of the Falling Leaves,” like in 2014 when Ireland’s Dan Martin triumphed, finishes in Bergamo.

The race’s marquee Madonna del Ghisallo climb — a 10.6-kilometer ascent at an average gradient of 5.2 percent — now comes just 65km into the 241km race instead of in the final third.

Seven climbs follow suit, two of which have been included for the first time as organizers look for drama in what is the European cycling season’s finale.

The world championships will be held in Doha next week, so for some, Il Lombardia — one of cycling’s five monuments — is a chance to show, gauge, and hone their form ahead of their national teams’ respective bids to secure the coveted rainbow jersey.

Aru is a former Vuelta a Espana winner whose sole win this season was a stage at the Critérium du Dauphiné.

But the 26-year-old Italian warmed up for a tilt at Nibali’s crown by finishing sixth in Milano-Torino this week, a race the finished atop Superga.

Aru was given an extra boost after teammate Miguel Angel Lopez triumphed by 9 seconds over Canadian Michael Woods.

But the Italian faces tough opposition.

Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) pulled out of Milano-Torino with an illness but is expected to be among the challengers after successive runner-ups in 2012 and 2013.

Whether Rodriguez feels the same motivation remains to be seen.

Spain’s 2012 and 2013 winner has been forced to come out of retirement after his Katusha team insisted he race the autumn classics.

Dutchman Wout Poels, the Liège–Bastogne–Liège champion, leads the hopes of British outfit Sky amid scrutiny and suspicion following reports the team’s former star, Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, used medicine to gain an unfair advantage on his rivals.

Sky has claimed just two top-10 finishes at the race in six attempts, including Rigoberto Uran’s third-place finish in 2012.

Uran on Wednesday finished third at Milano-Torino, only 14 seconds behind Angel Lopez.

All the riders still in the race at the 176km mark, however, will face the fresh challenges of two new climbs for 2016: the Sant’Antonio Abbandonato and the Miragolo San Salvatore.

The Abbandonato, 6.5km long at an average gradient of 8.9 percent but with sections at 15 percent, begins after 176.1km of racing.

Almost 10km after the summit, the peloton heads into the unknown again with the 8.7km ascent of San Salvatore (7 percent average).

They both come before the day’s final major challenge, the 6.9km Selvino climb, whose summit is 28.3km from the finish.

Just to make sure the Lombardia champion is worth his salt, the Bergamo Alta — a small climb which features cobbles and grades up to 12 percent — has been placed 4km from the finish.