Commentary: Il Lombardia and the Italian fall classics deserve our love
Professional men’s cycling is a never-ending feast. There is the Tour de France in all its hype and glory. The grand tours, the spring classics, and the world championships keep the party rolling.
Perhaps more than any sport, cycling is an eternally spinning wheel, with races across all disciplines across the entire globe, every month of the year.
And that’s good thing.
After road season tapers out, there’s cyclocross, Six Day track racing, training camps, early season races, and then — boom! — straight into the meat of the WorldTour calendar. Add mountain biking, BMX, and e-bikes and Zwifting on the rise, what’s not to love?
There’s one slice of the calendar that’s wholly under-appreciated and nearly overlooked — the Italian fall classics.
This sometimes disregarded season-ending series of six one-day races across northern Italy are among cycling’s oldest and most prestigious races. The routes loop around the wooded plains and steep climbs of Lombardy and Piedmont, with cycling’s giants featuring among their palmares.
Kind of a bit like Paris-Tours, however, these late-season races seem almost like an afterthought. They don’t carry the same gravitational pull as the Tour and the races don’t pack the same resonance and drama of the spring classics. And the hipster crowd, so keen on races like Tro-Bro Léon, has yet to be seduced by their charms. With the exception of Giro di Lombardia, which is the fifth of cycling’s monuments, most of the races only draw a handful of die-hard local fans.
Italy’s fall classics are as pure, demanding and romantic as anything on the international calendar. Yet the races don’t get their props.
Most of the races date back more than a century yet they largely remain on the edges of cycling’s collective consciousness.
Maybe it’s a cycling hangover. By October, race-fatigue starts to set in after a long campaign. Rather than serve as an exclamation point at the end of the season, they’re almost seen to get lost in the haze of months of racing.
It shouldn’t be that way. These races deserve more. The hilly, demanding routes feature some of cycling’s most iconic climbs across the Lombardy and Piedmont regions of Italy, punctuated by the Madonna del Ghisallo in the Giro di Lombardia on Saturday.
A lot of people love these races, and rightly so.
They’re are bundled into two pairs of “triples,” called “trittico” in Italian, spread over two weekends in the wake of the world championships. The Giro dell’Emilia, GP Bruno Beghelli and Tre Valli Varesine, won Tuesday by Primoz Roglic, make up the “trittico Lombardo,” or Lombardy triple, while Milano-Torino, Gran Piemonte and Lombardia round out the “trittico di autunno,” with the autumn triptych the more prestigious of the two.
Though some haven’t been held every year, five of six of the races date back more than a century. Lombardia is one of cycling’s most prized one-day titles, while both Milano-Torino and Gran Piemonte bold tilt close to 200km, assuring a hard bite at the end of the season.
The races also provide the first chance for the newly minted rainbow jersey to hit the roads before season’s close. This year was no exception as Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) proudly showed off his new bands and a new frame with the appropriate stripes.
Determined and on-form riders can often barnstorm through the final week against a weary and unmotivated field. It appears Roglic is taking a page from the likes of Philippe Gilbert or some of the Italian legends that would dominate the late-season classics.
Some point to the sometimes underwhelming week, however, as an example that the racing calendar is simply too long and argue that it needs to be streamlined and condensed. They point to the sparse crowds, low TV ratings and thin field as rationale for a calendar shakeup.
Yet every race has its story, and the tradition of these fall classics shouldn’t be taken lightly. Organizers tried to move Milano-Torino to the spring a few years ago, only to quickly bring it back to it October slot on the calendar.
What can be done to jazz them up?
Flanders Classics has done an impressive job spicing up the spring classics, converting the one-days across Belgium and northern France into one of the most exciting weeks on the calendar. Italy could do the same, with Lake Como as a backdrop and a spritz on ice to watch the races.
RCS Sport, which organizes the “trittico di autunno” ending with Lombardia on Saturday, is trying its best to sharpen up its properties.
The teams like the way the two weekends are bundled together as well, meaning riders and teams can converge in one of cycling’s hotbeds for a fitting finale to another intense racing season.
One idea making the rounds for 2020 is a revival of cycling’s World Cup. The UCI pulled the plug on the World Cup when it unrolled the WorldTour more than a decade ago, but some of the one-day races have since died on the vine as the WorldTour have gained prominence.
The UCI is working on an interesting project called the “Classics Series” which packages together many of the calendar’s one-day classics and monuments in a season-long series with a parallel points classification and prizes. Details remain sketchy, but the Italian fall classics would see a boon if they remain at the end of the revived series that could debut as soon as next season.
Negotiations, however, have bogged down between the UCI and the teams’ association. Though teams say they support the concept, there’s disagreement over how broadcast and digital rights, promotion, and money should be dished out. Teams want a bigger piece of the pie, but there is no agreement between the stakeholders on how to move forward. Last month, the team’s association formally came out against the latest incarnation of the series concept being promoted by the UCI.
In the meantime, everyone should get their popcorn out and enjoy these final races on the European calendar.
Lombardia still packs a punch, and cycling’s “classic of the falling leaves” holds its allure as one of cycling’s elusive monuments, meaning the hitters like Egan Bernal (Ineos) come to race.
The European road-racing season couldn’t conclude with a more idyllic of setting than across the autumn hues of northern Italy. The crisp cool air is only matched by the changing tones of the trees and the collective weariness of the riders’ legs.
Italy’s fall classics are the perfect way to bid “arrivederci” to the road season.