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Five riders to watch at Il Lombardia

From defending champions to dark-horse contenders, here are the five riders to watch out for in the final monument of the season.

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It packs lots of climbs, attracts a stellar cast of climbers, and draws end-of-season kudos.

Il Lombardia is the most overlooked monument of the five, but one of the best races of the year.

Puncheurs, grand tour stars, and riders looking to salvage their seasons descend on Italy’s Lombardy region for the “Race of the Falling Leaves” each October in what is the last major appointment of the pro cycling year.

Riders as illustrious as Tadej Pogačar, Vincenzo Nibali and Philippe Gilbert all added Lombardia to their palmarès in recent years, but who will have the honor of doing the same at the end of 2022’s 116th edition?

Here are five riders to watch in the final monument of the season on Saturday:

Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates)

Tadej Pogačar outkicked Wout van Aert in sensational style in Montréal.
  • Appearances: 2
  • Record: 2021: 1st

Tadej Pogačar is defending Lombardia champion, double Tour de France winner, and has one-day victories stretching from Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Strade Bianche through GP Montréal. This guy knows how to win big bike races.

And Pogačar be itching to win another big one before the year is done and steer the ship back on course after seeing 2022 not go entirely his way.

A late withdrawal from a Liège defense in spring, a vanquishing by Jonas Vingegaard in summer, and a missed opportunity in Wollongong last month sees Pogačar’s once-Mercxian grip on pro cycling weakened a touch.

Pogačar will ride into Lombardia with a disappointing season to set right but also with the wind at his sails.

Victory in Montréal and reduced-kick victory Tuesday at Tre Valli over a cast of Lombardia-bound stars puts Pogačar on course to line up as five-star favorite Saturday.

“To win in Lombardia was the perfect end to the season, and we are motivated to go back and try to repeat that,” he said.

Beating Tour de France foe and Lombardy rival Vingegaard may add a touch more motivation too, of course.

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)

Alejandro Valverde and Vincenzo Nibali both end their careers at Il Lombardia. (Photo: Sprint Cycling Agency)
  • Appearances: 11
  • Record: 2013, 2014, 2019: 2nd

One last hoorah for Alejandro Valverde? The 42-year-old bows out of pro cycling Saturday with a blast through Italy’s falling leaves, and he will want to make a statement.

Unlike fellow favorites Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard, Valverde doesn’t have youth at his side. But he does have two decades of canny, the experience of 34 monument starts, top-4 finishes in his last three races, and the ace card of teammate Enric Mas.

The young Mallorcan is on the form of his life after placing second at the Vuelta a España and backing it up with victory in Giro dell’Emilia at the weekend, and if the two play it right, Movistar could land its first monument in some time.

“Lombardia is 60km longer, and we know that Alejandro, that type of classic is very good for him,” Mas said after beating back Tadej Pogačar in Emilia.

“Today was today; we have been able to achieve victory, now comes Tre Valli and other classics, where we hope to be able to fight as well, and Lombardia, which will be the great goal of this end of the season.”

Il Lombardia is the monument that got away for Valverde.

The Spaniard started the race 11 times and slotted into the top-10 in all but one of his last seven appearances. Three second-places left Valverde within a whisker of a hat-trick of victories that would have sat alongside his four Liège wins nicely.

Topping the podium in his last pro race, at an event he’s so far struggled to unlock, would make for one very dreamy ending.

Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma)

Jonas Vingegaard brushed off the cobwebs at Croatia last week.
  • Appearances: 2
  • Record: 2021: 14th

Jonas Vingegaard is no monument master, but neither was he known as a grand tour great until 15 months ago.

The reigning Tour de France champion started Lombardia twice and Liège-Bastogne-Liège three times and never yet cracked the top-10. But a Tour de France yellow jersey could give him wings.

Vingegaard was squeezed out of overall victory at the CRO Race and looked a half-inch from his best.

However, after using Croatia as a warmup ahead of a season target in Italy, Vingegaard could still refind the form that saw him swat away Tadej Pogačar at the Tour just in time to end a stellar season with a flourish.

And the Dane isn’t a stranger to one-day racing altogether.

Victory at the hilly Drôme Classic this winter against puncheurs of the pedigree of Julian Alaphilippe and Benoît Cosnefroy shows the Dane could still dazzle one more time this year.

Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl)

Different jersey, same panache for Julian Alaphilippe.
  • Appearances: 4
  • Record: 2020: 2nd

Rainbow jersey curse? Could have been the case for Julian Alaphilippe so far this year.

But now the French ace is out of the stripey bands, Il Lombardia could give the former world champion the big win he’s been waiting for all season.

“Julian comes from Australia and is very determined for these final weeks of the season, but we also have other guys who can get a nice result at the end of the day, so we’re confident and will do our best out there,” said Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl sport director Davide Bramati.

Alaphilippe leads a climber-centric Quick-Step team into Il Lombardia in what will be his last big chance of the year to pad his palmarès after a dry season riddled with disaster.

Just two victories all year says it all. Three huge crashes and a terribly-timed tangle with COVID saw Alaphilippe on the sidelines as much as he was on the startsheet.

Alaphilippe only raced three times since he crashed out of the Vuelta a España in late August and lost his world title in the process. But the 30-year-old has four Lombardia starts in his legs, the racing know-how of a double world champion, and the massive motivation to leave Lombardy free of the rainbow curse, and with a marquee win for his collection.

Matej Mohorič (Bahrain-Victorious)

Matej Mohorič, ultimate Lombardia dark-horse?
  • Appearances: 2
  • Record: 2018: 56th

Matej Mohorič went quiet since he plummeted to Milan-San Remo success in the spring.

COVID and a series of health complications left “the other” Slovenian out of gas at the Tour de France and far from his barnstorming, breakaway-bashing best. But he might just be back.

“This was a bit of a goal for me, I wanted to finish the season in good shape,” Mohorič said after he secured GC victory in the CRO Race last week.

“I had a lot of health problems this summer and I started to feel better when I went to Canada. I decided not to do the world championships so I could train more because I thought I wouldn’t have the shape to be competitive. Here, I came with better legs already and I’m very happy and proud we could pull off this win with my team.”

Mohorič isn’t noted for his climber chops and has yet to find his legs in Lombardy. But a revised route for Il Lombardia in 2022 cuts the leg-crushing Muro di Sormano, offers a lot of room for recovery in the middle of the race, and could make Mohorič the ultimate dark-horse for this year’s edition.

Mohorič is a master of making things go his way in the longest, hardest events of the season, even when the odds are stacked against him. Victory on Saturday would see him bookending his season nicely and decisively shoot him back to the world stage.

Also watch: Vicenzo Nibali (Astana Qazaqstan), Michael Woods (Israel Premier Tech), Dani Martínez (Ineos Grenadiers), Enric Mas (Movistar), Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe), David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ)