By Andrew Hood
Saturday’s Giro di Lombardia – the “Race of the Falling Leaves” – is Italy’s long good-bye to yet another exciting, daring and controversy-filled season.
In the last major European event of the 2009 campaign, Lombardia always packs an emotional and palpating punch to put the peloton to rest for an ever-shortening winter to recharge the batteries going into the next year.
While many of the sport’s top stars were in Paris this week for the presentation of the 2010 Tour de France, the peloton’s grizzled hard-men converged in northern Italy for a week of racing that puts a classy conclusion to a long racing season.
It’s fitting that riders like world champion Cadel Evans, two-time defending champion and three-time winner Damiano Cunego and comeback kid Chris Horner will toe up to the line Saturday in Como to challenge for the autumn “monument.”
All these riders are cut from the old-school mold. They race – and get results – from February to October. Motivation and desire are the key ingredients to Lombardia success after a long, taxing season.
The twisting, demanding 242km course around Italy’s northern Lake Country – starting in Varese, climbing over the historic Ghisallo hill and ending in Como – is a chance to confirm or save the season. The steep, severe hills favor the puncheurs and the classic specialists
The route traces its modern course, tackling the Ghisallo (6.2% grades) at 197km, when the first decisive attacks are typically made from the contenders. That’s quickly followed by the Civiglio climb (7.2%) at 226km and the final, often-decisive climb at the San Fermo della Battaglia (6.8%), short but steep with less than 6km to go.
It’s no surprise to see riders who shone in the road worlds at Mendrisio top the list of favorites going into this year’s edition.
Evans and Cunego are the marquee names, with the likes of Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel), Joaquim Rodríguez (in his last race with Caisse d’Epargne before moving to Katusha), Philippe Gilbert (on a three-win tear for Silence-Lotto) and worlds runner-up Alexandr Kolobnev (Saxo Bank) filling out the pre-race list of favorites.
Rightly so, the Italians consider Lombardia theirs. Created in 1905, the race is long on tradition and history, with such names as Merckx, Coppi, Hinault and Kelly filling the palmares.
Italians have dominated the race as of late, winning eight consecutive editions. The last non-Italian winner was Rumsas Raimondus from Lithuania back in 2000.
There’s a strong North American contingent for the final major European race of the 2009 calendar.
The big news for U.S. fans is the return of Chris Horner (Astana), who is back in Europe after crashing out of the Vuelta a España in late August with a fractured hand and hip.
Tom Danielson, Tim Duggan, Will Frischkorn and Christian Meier line up for Garmin-Slipstream while Michael Barry and Craig Lewis toe up for Columbia-HTC.
Both Horner and Lewis posted strong rides in ’08, and each hope to repeat in what should be another exciting battle in Italy.
• Acqua e Sapone
• Bouygues Telecom
• Caisse d’Epargne
• Franaise des Jeux
• Quick Step
• Saxo Bank
1999: Mirko Celestino (ITA)
2000: Raimondas Rumsas (LTU)
2001: Danilo Di Luca (ITA)
2002: Michele Bartoli (ITA)
2003: Michele Bartoli (ITA)
2004: Damiano Cunego (ITA)
2005: Paolo Bettini (ITA)
2006: Paolo Bettini (ITA)
2007: Damiano Cunego (ITA)
2008: Damiano Cunego (ITA)