Lombardia hopefuls put their form in display in Italian semi-classics before Saturday's main event

Il Lombardia gets underway on Saturday, and the pre-race favorites for the final monument of the 2018 season are starting to come into focus.

The 241-kilometer trek from Bergamo to Como, with a finale that features the short but demanding Civiglio ascent and the new Monto Olimpino, favors strong climbers. This week’s run of lumpy semi-classics in Italy offers Lombardia hopefuls a prime opportunity to stretch their legs ahead of the weekend’s main event.

Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) won Wednesday’s Milano-Torino, stating his own case as a Lombardia contender. It was Miguel Ángel López (Astana), however, who was most impressive in second place.

The Colombian climber was caught up with a crash with Pinot’s teammate David Gaudu just when the Astana leader was poised to attack in the searing finale up the Superga climb.

Gaudu pulled off to his right with about 1.5km to go and tangled up his bike with López, who had just glanced toward Pinot and was opening up his attack. With López and Gaudu on the ground, Pinot darted away with world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) chasing. Pinot held on for the win, with López and Valverde rounding out the podium.

“To finally win an Italian classic means a lot to me,” said Pinot, who was second at Tre Valli Varesine behind Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo). “If it wasn’t for the crash, it would have been much harder to beat López. To beat the world champion really means a lot. It’s a win that will stay with me for awhile.”

Racing continues Thursday with Gran Piemonte, a race that favors the sprinters, before Saturday’s climb-heavy finale at Lombardia.

“I’m happy to be on the podium. I knew it was going to be hard to win,” Valverde said. “I came here to enjoy and race. If I had wanted to win, I would have held back a little bit.”

Valverde came to Italy with the intention of showing off his recently won rainbow jersey stripes. The veteran Spaniard was 15th in Tre Valli Varesine and hit the podium Wednesday. Now it’s all in for Lombardia, a race he’s never won despite being second on two occasions.

“It gives me confidence to see myself like this for Saturday,” Valverde said. “I’ll try to make a good Lombardia. Winning is never easy. It will be a hard race with rivals at a top level. But the legs are feeling good and I confident I can do it again Saturday.”

Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) will be counted among the favorites even though he’s shown inconsistent form since returning from his crash at the Tour de France. Nibali was eighth at Giro dell’Emilia last weekend and rode to 20th Wednesday.

Julian Alaphillipe (Quick-Step) pulled the plug on his season citing fatigue, leaving Pinot and worlds runner-up Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) to carry French hopes on Saturday. Worlds bronze medalist Michael Woods (EF-Drapac) and Alessandro De Marchi (BMC Racing) are also on form. Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo), and Egan Bernal (Sky) round out a deep start list for Saturday’s Italian closer.