A duel between Alberto Contador and Philippe Gilbert on some of the most beautiful roads of Europe? The scenery is guaranteed but we could have a wider cast fighting for the win. An exceptionally hard course with difficult conditions forecast means this race is going to test condition, handling skills and the mind.
Here is a preview of the route, the contenders, with TV times and details of a free stream, the weather forecast and more.
The Route: the race is defined by the series of climbs along the route The Valico di Valcava is a proper alpine-style climb with hairpin bends and a tough gradient, 11km at 8%. Next up is the Colle Brianza, just 4km at 7%, a short one to disrupt the rhythm and add climbing.
Sormano: the Sormano climb featured last year but the standard route up to the top. This year sees the race turn off halfway up the climb after moderate 7% gradients to use an even steeper road, the Muro di Sormano, the wall of Sormano with 15.8% average and ramps at 25-27%.
Capisco che il Ghisallo non dava più garanzie di selezione, ma francamente si è esagerato nel senso opposto. Questa salita è semplicemente bestiale, impossibile da percorrere
I understand the Ghisallo can no longer guarantee a selection, but frankly this goes way too far in the opposite sense. This climb is simply beastly, impossible to ride.
– Ercole Baldini
That’s a quote from the past which lives on today as it is painted on the road, along with other citations and more in an art project that has decorated this climb. Used from 1960-1962 the road had riders walking up although compact chainsets and other aids will ensure riders are not humiliated tomorrow – 34×28 seems to be the pro choice. Regardless of gearing it is an intense effort and given the weather forecast, an exercise in balance and traction. And that’s just the climb, the descent back down to the shore of Lake Como is very tricky with sharp bends that tighten up and narrow roads through shaded woodland. It’s hard but a long way from the finish.
Soon after the descent comes the Via Vallesina, better known as the Ghisallo. At a roundabout outside Bellagio the riders will turn right and then start one of the sport’s mythical roads. The climb up to the Madonna del Ghisallo chapel starts hard with 10% gradients and hairpin bends. The first four kilometres continue at about 9% with some steeper ramps before the road levels out from Palaino to Civenna before the final ramps to the Ghisallo. As such this is almost two climbs, an early section followed by some flat and even downhill sections as the route goes through the village of Guello before the final kick to the chapel… and then there’s a pesky false flat that drags on. There’s also another difficult descent.
Salite di Ello – Villa Vergano: the final climb was a new edition last year and proved decisive. Winding up past houses on a narrow road, the road to is steep with 3.4km at 8% but the last kilometre at 15%, a devastating gradient after 245km.
The Scenario: If the climbs define the route, don’t forget the rest. The climbs are fast and well-surfaced but this means the smooth tarmac is slippery in the wet. And there are some long flat sections between the climbs which can prove fatal to lone breaks or small groups.
An early break should pull out a big lead in the rain before the chase begins. The Sormano is 90km from the finish but enough to smash the peloton into pieces. Hopefully the carnage is on the climb rather than the descent and this should set up a selection for the Ghisallo climb which is then further refined by the final climb to Villa Vergano, the perfect springboard for an attack so a rider can go solo. It’s all about managing the effort, staying with the leaders on each climb and descent whilst saving energy for the next climb.
The Finish: the road to the finish line is flat… but only from 2.8km to go because the climb of Villa Vergano and its descent precedes it. Like so many of the roads in the area the descent is tricky and irregular, nervously winding its way down through fields, past gardens and houses. It’s technical on a normal road in dry conditions but after 250km in the rain mistakes can come easy.
Philippe Gilbert has won the race twice before and arrives with the rainbow jersey, riding clear on the Cauberg whilst everyone else floundered. This alone is enough to make him the outstanding contender for the race.
But before you rush to the bookmakers, note this race has a lot more climbing that last Sunday’s loop in Limburg. Lombardy is probably at the limit of Gilbert’s capabilities as the course suits the climbers more than the puncheurs, especially with the Sormano to break the legs midway in the race. But don’t forget he has a useful sprint if it comes to a small group finish. He can win but if he does, it will be special rather than predictable.
Alberto Contador says he’s 2.5kg heavier than the Vuelta but this didn’t stop him doing his familiar hip-swaying dance on the Superga to win Milan-Torino on Wednesday. Strong in the worlds, he should find this course more suitable but will probably have to anticipate a sprint and attack on one of the climbs.
Vincenzo Nibali isn’t a local since he’s from Sicily but he knows the local roads well. Last year he did a long lone break that was exciting but futile. He’s known as a demon descender but the Shark of Messina is fast getting a reputation for biting off more than he can chew and being reeled in by rivals in one day races but he can still impress. If not then team mate Moreno Moser is ready, he was setting the tempo in the worlds for Nibali before sitting up and Ivan Basso has been training quietly for this too.
Joaquim Rodriguez has a strong card to play being well-suited to these climbs and can sprint well in case he arrives with others. He looked good in Milano-Torino and could easily do a flyer on the Villa Vergano 15% ramps. But he’s not known for liking the rain.
Next comes a long list of riders to watch. First a trio of Colombians with Sky’s Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao and Acqua e Sapone’s Carlos Betancur who are all making a name for themselves as punch riders who can thrive on this course. Lampre-ISD’s Diego Ulissi was second to Contador on the Superga and the Tuscan has the burden of saving Lampre from a dismal season in their home race – you can see the Lampre HQ on the autostrada from Milan to Bergamo – whilst Damiano Cunego seems invisible these days. Franco Pellizotti, now infamous as one of the few riders to be caught by the bio-passport scheme, seems in shape as does Danilo di Luca. Scandinavia brings us Fred Kessiakoff and L-P Nordhaug, both capable of winning. Perpetual late season dark horse Sacha Kolobnev might be another lurker even if he almost never wins. Garmin-Sharp come with Dan Martin and Ryder Hesjedal, both are looking good.
Weather: this is important because rain is forecast all day. Temperatures will reach 19°C (66°F) in the valleys but it will be cooler on top of the climbs. Above all the rain makes the descents very tricky, there are some wild sections in dry but the wet makes it even harder. Hopefully “the race of the falling leaves” doesn’t become the race of the falling riders.
TV: don’t forget this on Saturday. Eurosport is offering coverage from 4.00-5.15pm Euro time, Italy’s RAI is live from 3.00-4.45pm and there is a free video stream live from 2.30pm at gazzetta.it timed to pick up the race from the Sormano.
Do It: the spring classics in northern Europe are great races but once the sheen of new bikes and glow of team clothing has passed the landscapes are dismal and a solo ride isn’t the same. Similarly the Alpine roads used by the Tour de France are often major transport axes, they are great when the roads are closed but return as a tourist and the roads are less glamorous.
By contrast the roads of Lombardy are excellent with stunning views over the lakes and if you visit in the summer the waters are blue like a tropical lagoon. The region can be a bit crowded but Sunday morning sees the locals out riding, with packs of groomed silver foxes riding team-issue machines a common sight.
Local Rider: the race starts in Bergamo with a special tribute to Felice Gimondi who celebrates his 70th birthday today. Elegant today, he had style on the bike and was one of the few who could challenge Eddy Merckx, although his victories against the Belgian were rare. Il Fenice, “the Phoenix” is only one of five riders to have won all three grand tours, plus he was world champion, took Paris-Roubaix, Milan-Sanremo and won the Giro di Lombardia twice.
Also spare a thought for BMC Racing’s Marco Pinotti. The Italian role model was storming around the worlds TT course until he fell and broke his collarbone. His season over, he lives just a few kilometres from the start and misses the chance to race in front of his local supporters.
Z for Zaugg: this isn’t a race you win by chance but last year’s winner Oliver Zaugg created a big surprise when he attacked on the final climb and rode away. Journalists scrambled for information but since he’d next to nothing during a long career it was hard to find any stories, more so since he’s a quiet family man from Switzerland who said that if he was reincarnated he’d like to come back as a marmotte “because nobody bothers them“. Sometimes results are a breakthrough, a rider’s confidence gets pumped to the max. But Zaugg has yet to step up and his best place this season is a 5th place in Stage 4 of the Tour of Colorado.