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Book Excerpt: Giro di Lombardia, “the Classic of the Falling Leaves”

The history and romance of this weekend's Tour of Lombardy, in an exclusive excerpt from The Spring Classics.

This article is an adaptation of The Spring Classics: Cycling’s Greatest One-Day Races, published by VeloPress in September. The book is available in bookstores, bike shops, and online. The 2010 Giro di Lombardia is this Saturday, October 16; watch for a preview by John Wilcockson later this week on VeloNews.com.

From The Spring Classics: The Tour of Lombardy, the Most Beautiful of Them All
1930 — The impatient breakaway riders don’t want the peloton to catch up, and because there’s no sign of a train, they decide to climb the crossing’s imposing iron fence. Photo: Reprinted with permission from The Spring Classic.

In their hearts, Italians know that la Classica delle Foglie Morte, “the Classic of the Falling Leaves,” is perhaps not the greatest in terms of international prestige. But the Giro di Lombardia remains dear to Italy and to cycling. It is Milan–San Remo’s autumnal counterpart, the cornerstone of a certain form of cycling, filled with hope and reminiscence, and wedded to the blue coves of Lake Como.

In a century of existence, the Tour of Lombardy has undergone numerous course changes that have not always been inspired but have in any case contributed to its durability. Disappointed by Rik Van Looy’s sprint victory in 1959, and ignoring loud protests by Jacques Anquetil, organizer Vincenzo Torriani steered the following year’s race toward the Wall of Sormano. This narrow projection dug from a mountainside, a sort of 2 km–long geographical monstrosity, featured frightful passages of 22 percent that climbed, unprotected, above deep ravines. One of the only riders to cross safely would, curiously, be small Belgian sprinter Émile Daems. Most of his rivals would have no choice but to climb the Sormano on foot in a savage transposition of Belgium’s Koppenberg, the bane of riders in the Tour of Flanders.

From The Spring Classics: The Tour of Lombardy, the Most Beautiful of Them All
From The Spring Classics: The Tour of Lombardy, the Most Beautiful of Them All

The Tour of Lombardy thus evolved from one extreme to the other, constantly seeking a better script but without ever abandoning its distinctiveness—and, most importantly, without ever turning away from the Madonna del Ghisallo, the essence of its being. The celebrated Ghisallo is almost a natural mausoleum, with its 10 km slope and its small hilltop chapel, which is filled with champions’ bicycles, woolen jerseys, and other relics of the illustrious cycling heroes of yesteryear and is reputed to protect the riders. Outside the chapel, a bronze bust of Fausto Coppi faces the road, as if to remind riders that history remains subject to the injunctions of the past.

Coppi was for many years the leading man on the Ghisallo, the great dignitary of this mountain-minded classic that never allows false hopes to last long. The roads twisting around Lake Como are exacting, the spectators are passionate, and a prewinter cold is often rampant.

There was actually a time when French teams were reluctant to make the journey to northern Italy in October, basing their fears on the opinions of their elders. “The Tour of Lombardy is a terrible race,” said Francis Pélissier in 1946. “It is often run in the snow; and then you cross small towns with zigzagging streets covered with rails and gutters. The roads are narrow and the Italians run riot. In 1921, my mission was to start the final sprint for my brother Henri when [Costante] Girardengo grabbed me by the jersey! I crashed to the ground, under Henri’s wheel; but that’s how it is in Italy, and I don’t think Émile Idée [Coppi’s contemporary] and the other Frenchmen can do much better.”

Another French racer, Raphaël Geminiani, also remembered those days: “When a Frenchman announced he was going to ride in the Tour of Lombardy we all looked at him with round eyes. We took him for a madman or a megalomaniac.”

It was as if the Tour of Lombardy were reserved just for Italians, and especially Coppi, who won it five times, including four in a row. On each occasion, he finished the race on his own following a perfected formula. He controlled his rivals until the climb of the Ghisallo, that impregnable bastion he could have climbed with his eyes closed, and then dropped them one by one by the summit, before doubling his lead on the descent to Erba without ever looking back, using his light, agile, and highly efficient pedal stroke. According to writer Ciro Venatti of Corriere della Serra, Coppi was “a lover of peaks and solitude.” French writer and race organizer Jacques Goddet said that “his ease allows him to surpass the usual data of road cycling.”

From The Spring Classics: The Tour of Lombardy, the Most Beautiful of Them All
1961 — The riders are still winding along the waterfront roads of Lake Como on their way to the rugged gradients of the Madonnna de Ghisallo before heading to the even steep climb of the Sormano. Photo: Reprinted with permission from The Spring Classic.

Like all the classics, the Tour of Lombardy has experienced good and bad years, mixed results. In 1953, Pierre Molineris narrowly missed out on victory when misdirected by a security guard just before the last straightaway, leaving victory to an unknown Italian, Bruno Landi, from whom nothing was ever heard again.

A few years later the whimsical Gerben Karstens had his first place taken away and handed to Belgium’s Jean-Pierre Monseré for a doping violation. The Dutchman had received the news speechlessly, given that he had handed the inspectors from the sport’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), a sample of his soigneur’s urine rather than his own, without imagining for an instant that the soigneur in question was doping!

The Tour of Lombardy has also been the setting of a few messy disputes. In 1975, Belgians Merckx, Freddy Maertens, and Roger De Vlaeminck accused Italy’s Francesco Moser of having caught them from behind after riding in the draft of an Italian TV car. That was nothing new in Italy, where the stranieri, the “foreigners,” often fell victim to underhanded combinazione, or deals among the natives.

In 1986, when everyone expected a sprinter to triumph in Milan, the race ended in discord and resignation following the unexpected victory of climber Gianbattista Baronchelli. The Italian had extricated himself unchallenged from the leading group some kilometers from the finish at Milan’s magnificent cathedral. Behind him, Ireland’s Sean Kelly passed the responsibility of chasing him to Australia’s Phil Anderson—but not without reminding Anderson that he owed Kelly for his help in winning the preceding Paris-Tours classic. But Anderson turned a deaf ear, giving Baronchelli the win.

The Spring Classics
The Spring Classics is published by VeloPress

After investigation, it appeared that Kelly, the reigning champion, had not fully defended his title after a midrace conversation with bike builder Ernesto Colnago, one of Baronchelli’s sponsors. When the Irishman won in 1983, in a photo finish ahead of American Greg LeMond, it was the very first of his multiple classics victories; he would win Lombardia again in 1985 and 1991.

The race has seen many moments of truth and absolute lyricism, as when Bernard Hinault won in a downpour in 1979, after an imperial 60 km breakaway with an ultimately exhausted Silvano Contini. Another Frenchman, Charly Mottet, performed a solo on the Corso Venezia in Milan and sealed an athletically stunning win, after a 100 km breakaway launched in the spectacular Valcava climb. In 2006, Italy’s recently crowned world champion, Paolo Bettini, collapsed in tears in Como as he crossed the line first in a final tribute to his brother Sauro, who had died in a car crash just days before. And in 2009, Philippe Gilbert scored the biggest victory of his career to become the first Belgian in 30 years to conquer this most beautiful of classics.

The Tour of Lombardy is all of this at once: an antique theater of light and shadow, a nostalgic salute to a land already turning toward winter. Each year, on Como’s Lario Trento, as the last riders mingle with traffic on their way to the showers, the setting sun marks the end of another season of road racing.