The new world champion has twice finished second at Il Lombardia. Will this be the year that Alejandro Valverde wins the hilly monument?

MILANO (AFP) — Newly crowned world champion Alejandro Valverde headlines the season finale Il Lombardia on Saturday looking for his first win in a race where he has twice finished runner-up.

The fifth and final monument of the season — the ‘Race of the Falling Leaves’ — will be fought over 241km through the hilly region between Bergamo and Como in northern Italy.

Movistar’s Valverde will be challenged by the same rivals who he beat for the world championships road race crown in Innsbruck last month, including France’s Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) who finished second and third-placed Canadian Michael Woods (EF Education First-Drapac).

“Being world champion is important for whoever it might be,” said Valverde.

“It’s also a race that I like a lot and which I’ve always nearly won.”

Valverde finished second in Lombardia in 2013 and 2014. Due to the race’s length and significant climbing, the Spaniard is suited for the Italian classic.

The 38-year-old warmed up by finishing third in the Milano-Torino semi-classic on Wednesday, which was won by French rider Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), who will be among the favorites this weekend.

Valverde, who was banned for two years following Spanish doping probe Operacion Puerto, this week defended his record since returning in 2012.

“That’s water under the bridge, and I don’t even want to talk about it. I believe I’ve sufficiently demonstrated who I am since then.”

Italian Vincenzo Nibali will be defending his title, over a route that is virtually identical to last year’s apart from a final short climb and three-kilometer descent to the finish line at Como.

Nibali, of the Bahrain-Merida team, also won the race in 2015 and is one of two former winners competing along with 2014 champion Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates).

The 33-year-old Nibali, who has won all the grand tours including the Tour de France in 2014, has struggled to find form this season. He began 2018 with a stunning victory in the season’s first monument race, Milano-Sanremo, but forced out of the Tour de France after a fan caused him to crash on Alpe d’Huez.

Other race favorites include French duo Pinot, and Bardet, Italian Gianni Moscon (Team Sky), and Colombian Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac).

“With the form I’m now showing, I’m getting more and more convinced of continuing the positive streak until Saturday in Lombardy,” said Pinot after winning the Milano-Torino.

The Mitchelton-Scott team will be led by 2018 Vuelta champion Simon Yates and his twin brother Adam.

The route features iconic climbs up Madonna del Ghisalo and Muro di Sormano, with the final hill a 1.7km ascent to Monte Olimpino with a five percent gradient.