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Il Lombardia 2020: Remco versus the rest?

Nibali, van der Poel, Woods and Bennett among those looking to shut down Evenepoel at Saturday's Italian monument.

It’s all eyes on Remco Evenepoel at Il Lombardia on Saturday.

The young Belgian is the outstanding favorite for the hilly Italian race this weekend as he makes his first-ever monument start. However, with the likes of Vincenzo Nibali, Matthieu van der Poel, George Bennett, Michael Woods, Alberto Bettiol, Jakob Fuglsang, and defending champion Bauke Mollema all set to take the start in Bergamo, Evenepoel won’t be having a walk in the park.

Evenepoel’s principal rival for this fall’s Giro d’Italia – Richard Carapaz – is also due to be racing through his attendance is still to be confirmed after picking up injuries at the Tour of Poland.

Just as a lot of things are not the way they normally are this year, Il Lombardia, typically known as “the race of the falling leaves,” thanks to its mid-October slot on the WorldTour calendar, is due to become “the race of rebirth” for its 114th edition this weekend.

Rolling out of Bergamo, the heart of Italy’s COVID-19 crisis this March, race director Mauro Vegni described Saturday’s race as “a great opportunity for us, for the territories that host Il Lombardia and for all the cycling fans. After this tough period, we are convinced that helping riders back onto the roads is vitally important.”

Il Lombardia 2020: A few kilometers shorter, but just as lumpy. Image: RCS Sport.
Il Lombardia 2020: A few kilometers shorter, but just as lumpy. Image: RCS Sport.

The easiest way to describe Il Lombardia is that it’s like an Ardennes classic – only in Italy.

Packed with climbs of all lengths and gradients, the race favors not just those that can climb, but those that can race. To win, a rider needs to have the strength to last through the attritional final 50 kilometers, the nerves to descend like a demon through some technical drops, and the nous to know when to make the winning move. That’s why you see the likes of Nibali, Philippe Gilbert, and Thibaut Pinot among the recent winners.

“I think we will see a particularly aggressive race,” forecasted Mitchelton-Scott sport director Gene Bates. “We’ve seen riders like Evenepoel have been racing very aggressively and it is not unusual to seem him attack early on which could happen on Saturday.”

Although the race has been trimmed by 15km to a total of 231km for this year, all the key features that make the race one favoring attacking racing remain.

Expect the action to kick-start on the gnarly slopes of the Colma di Sormano, which packs a two-kilometer section of climbing at around 16 percent gradient. The narrow roads and tilting slopes see the strongest come to the fore before the survivors skirt along the waters of Lake Como toward the final double-header of the Civiglio and Battaglia.

It’s the steep climb over the Civiglio with 15km remaining that typically serves as the final shuffling of the deck, used as a winning launchpad by Mollema last year and Thibaut Pinot in 2018. From there, it’s a technical descent and short punch over the Battaglia before a last-gasp 1,500-meter dash toward the line in Como.

Storylines to follow:

Can the Remco roadshow keep rolling?

Evenepoel recons the steep slopes of the Sormano climb. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images
Evenepoel recons the steep slopes of the Sormano climb. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

A streak of four-stage race wins in four was just the warmup for 20-year-old Evenepoel. Alongside the Giro d’Italia, Il Lombardia and the now-canceled Swiss worlds have been the center of the young Belgian’s ambitions since the post-COVID calendar was confirmed in May, and he’s ready.

“I have never prepared for a race as well as this one,” Evenepoel said Thursday. “This is my first peak moment and I want to be there.”

Evenepoel has reconned the route, proven himself over the short, sharp climbs of Poland in preparation for the slopes of Lombardy, won from long breakaways, and out-climbed the best on long ascents. To say he’s confident would be an understatement.

“My teammates have also worked towards this. I saw in Gran Piemonte on Wednesday that they are also ready. I have faith in them, they in me,” Evenepoel said. “I think that’s the key to success.”

The attritional nature of the race is tailor-made to Evenepoel’s skillset, and he knows it.

“It really suits me: a tough race with hardly any recovery in the last three hours,” he said.

It’s hard to bet against him.

A packed Dauphiné opens the race to new faces

With 99 percent of the riders that harbor ambitions at this summer’s Tour de France racing the Critérium du Dauphiné this week, Il Lombardia’s start list isn’t as deep as you’d expect to see in a “normal” year. However, while the Dauphiné clash may mean a few less big names on the line in Bergamo, it opens the race to new faces or those that may not typically get their own chances.

One of those is Jumbo-Visma’s climbing wingman George Bennett. Having put the hammer to Ineos at the front of his team’s Tour de l’Ain pain-train last week, the 30-year-old took an impressive win at Gran Piemonte on Wednesday and will be looking to repeat his Italian success Saturday.

“I knew I only had two days this season to go for my own chance. One of them was today, the other will be next Saturday in Il Lombardia,” Bennett said after his mid-week Piemonte win. “After that I go back to work as a domestique. So when I saw that I had the possibility today, I knew I had to go for it.”

The same story goes for the likes of Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), Mikel Nieve (Mitchelton-Scott), and Danny Navarro (Israel Start-Up Nation), who all get the opportunity to race for themselves where they may not have had such a chance in a typical season.

Just as there’s a sense that the peloton is racing as if every competition were their last with the fear of COVID still looming over the peloton, the chance for dark horses to step up from the shadows will add a new gusto to this year’s Lombardia.

Trek-Segafredo, EF Pro Cycling, Astana pack options

While Evenepoel is the odds-on favorite, several teams boast the depth in their rosters that could outfox the young Belgian and his youthful Deceuninck-Quick-Step team.

Trek-Segafredo’s roster boasts a host of climbing talent, including two former winners, Nibali and Mollema.

Although Nibali has won twice in recent years, the Sicilian feels that his opportunity for a third win may come via collective success rather than his trademark individual racecraft.

“This year’s edition is very different compared to the past,” Nibali said. “The years in which I did my best, I attended the event with many race days in my legs. At Milano-Sanremo I lacked a bit of sharpness, but the signals on the condition confirmed to me that I am in the right direction. Also, let’s not forget that with me there will be a well-equipped team.”

Other teams with the depth to send a rider up-and-over the Civiglio on route to a potential podium slot includes EF Pro Cycling with Michael Woods, Alberto Bettiol, and Simon Clarke, and Astana with Jakob Fuglsang, Jon Izagirre and Aleksandr Vlasov.

Given Evenepoel’s red-hot form since the coronavirus racing pause, teams with options are going to be plotting not “how to win,” but “how to beat Remco.”