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Lombardia’s gray days can’t keep stars away

The only major classic of the autumn, Giro di Lombardia will see a showdown between the world championship favorites of a week ago

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MILAN (VN) — The rain and cold that have swept through northern Italy in the last week have not stopped the stars from turning out for the final big classic of the season, the 107th Giro di Lombardia, on Sunday. Rui Costa (Movistar) will bring his fresh, new rainbow jersey and battle with familiar faces Joaquím Rodríguez (Katusha) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).

The 242-kilometer race will mark Costa’s first outing since winning the world championship on Sunday in Florence, Italy. The Portuguese Movistar rider will team with Alejandro Valverde, Giovanni Visconti, and Nairo Quintana — his rivals when they raced in national colors last weekend.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime achievement,” Rodríguez said last year after winning the season’s final monument. “With the rain, the cold, and the crashes, against riders like Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali, my win became a masterpiece.”

Rodríguez will wear dossard No. 1 as defending champion. Nibali, Costa, and Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) will each wear the lowest number for their respective teams. Tour de France champion Chris Froome (Sky), two-time winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), Liège–Bastogne–Liège champion Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp), Tour green jersey Peter Sagan (Cannondale), and USA Pro Challenge winner Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) will also be in Bergamo.

After leaving Bergamo, the race winds its way through industrial zones, climbs Valcava, drops back down towards Bergamo, and turns toward Lake Como. In Como’s Lario Triangle, the Muro di Sormano and Madonna di Ghisallo will be the first climbs to really test riders. The wall of Sormano, barely wide enough to allow a Fiat Panda to pass, averages 15.8-percent gradient over its 1.92km. Sergio Henao (Sky) was the fastest up the ramp last year, climbing in 9:20. Rodríguez survived, attacked on Villa Vergano, soloing from 9.4km down to the lakeside finish in Lecco. With the lull following Ghisallo, the winning attack should come from Villa Vergano again this year.

Lombardia, the “Race of the Falling Leaves,” is one of cycling’s five monuments and the only one in the autumn. It is easily overlooked as enthusiasm dies down post-worlds and attention turns to the forthcoming Giro d’Italia and Tour de France presentations. However, that does not take away from the race’s status. Many of the greats boast Lombardia on their palmares, including Sean Kelly (1983, 1985, 1991), Eddy Merckx (1971, 1972), Bernard Hinault (1979, 1984), and Fausto Coppi (1946-49, 1954).

Rodríguez needed victory to surpass Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and take the UCI WorldTour title in 2012. This year, Contador, Gilbert, and Ivan Basso (Cannondale) are trying to rescue their seasons. Contador said Friday that he hoped Lombardia would mark a new beginning, that essentially the 2014 season kicks off now. Basso, who abandoned the Vuelta a España and was unable to begin the Giro d’Italia, needs the win even more. With his 2010 win, Gilbert began a six-race unbeaten streak in the hilly classics that extended through Liège–Bastogne–Liège the following season.

Costa simply wants to brighten what is expected to be a gray day in his rainbow jersey. Though Gilbert won in 2009 and 2010, last year, fresh off his worlds win, he crashed and abandoned on a wet descent, saying “With the cold and rain I was just feeling paralyzed.”

More of the same misery is expected Sunday. The forecast shows rain and 61 degrees Fahrenheit at the time of the finish. Given the conditions expected, the competitors, and the course, whoever wins will go home with a masterpiece.