Joaquim Rodriguez has attacked on the Ello climb to Villa Vergano and pulled out a slender lead over Alberto Contador and Rigoberto Uran. Look closely in the photo and you can see the crowd in the background looking at the chasers as they approach the corner. But by now Rodriguez has the advantage. This was the moment the race was won.
The Muro di Sormano. The first Spanish winner of the race. The race moved to September. The new world champion crashing out. For all the novelty and action this year’s edition might also be remembered for the rain that poured almost all day long.
The rain started at the same time as the race. Sometimes the conditions can suck the morale out of the bunch but this time 46.6km were covered in the first hour as a breakaway struggled to form. Eventually 11 riders went clear but they never got much more than two minutes and on the slopes of the Muro di Sormano the leaders were rinsed down to two, Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Alberto Losada (Katusha) with Bardet finally cresting the “wall” solo.
Behind Vincenzo Nibali and others were forcing a selection, he went clear with Alberto Contadro, Joaquim Rodriguez, Sergio Henao, Nairo Quintana and Bauke Mollema. TV doesn’t do the slope justice, note that Rodriguez and Henao both clocked 9m20s for the climb, just 12.3km/h. As they climbed these riders weren’t in a lead peloton but resembled mountaineers on a line as they lifted themselves over the Sormano one by one.
Yet the descent was equally damaging and many crashed on the narrow roads. Bardet was cornering with one foot out of the pedals at times, perhaps his brown shorts helped to camouflage any emergency application of brown chamois cream? Several riders went out of the race including Philippe Gilbert. Is the rainbow jersey cursed? No, because Alessandro Ballan and Luca Paolini were also falling like raindrops. Even the race motorbikes were dropping.
They circled Lake Como and Bardet took the race into Bellagio, normally a swanky place – think of George Clooney’s villa and teak motorboats – but the race struggled to brighten up the day. The Frenchman took a slender lead on the early slopes of the Ghisallo but his pedalling style was getting choppy and he was eventually caught. It’s worth saluting Bardet, a 21 year old neo-pro who, back in April, led the Amstel race for most of the day. Again he went in the early break, again he lasted the longest. Yet Bardet was caught and Omega Pharma-Quickstep’s Kevin De Weert went clear, taking at least 30 seconds on the climb of the Ghisallo. But the Belgian didn’t look dangerous given there was 50km to go and riders were spotted chatting as they held a high tempo up the Ghisallo.
Whether riders asked the Madonna for protection is not known but soon after passing the chapel several riders were struck down, notably Nibali after he tangled with Paolo Tiralongo on a hairpin bend. Ahead De Weert slid on a corner and was swept up by the bunch. Then it was the turn of Rui Costa of Movistar to ride away but he never got more than 35 seconds. Still, he helped team mate and mountain ace Nairo Quintana sit tight in the bunch of 30 riders as they approached the final climb to Villa Vergano.
Then Il Lombardia became Il Diluvio, the downpour. The race has been brought forward a few weeks on the calendar and it seemed the weather followed it too. If it’s sad this race isn’t the finale any more, it was good to see a lot of big names at the start and plenty were present as they started the last climb. And that’s all we saw because what was once “the race of the falling leaves” briefly became a race of dropping images as the TV feed went in the rain.
In old times nobody saw what happened in a race, without TV cameras reporters would follow the race by car or motorbike and hope to get close to the action but often they could only piece together the actions they’d seen that day into a story and the account of the race could vary according to which newspaper you read. All we know is that on the early slopes Vacansoleil’s Marco Mercato launched an attack with Gorka Verdugo of Euskaltel. In time a strong Alexandr Kolobnev jumped across to him. You’d be forgiven for thinking Kolobnev is Russian for “never” because no matter how strong he seems, he never wins. But this move split the lead group as the next photo shows, you can spot Italian champion Pellizotti, Bauke Mollema and Ryder Hesjedal on the corner as the approach the cobbled section.
And when the TV images briefly flickered in Villa Vergano and picked out a small Katusha rider it wasn’t Kolobnev but Rodriguez who had scaled the climb the fastest. Predictably the red-clad Spaniard had attacked on the steepest part of the climb but as Uran and Contador tried, they couldn’t bring him back. Rodriguez crested the climb with no more than 10 seconds on Alberto Contador. You feared for Rodriguez on the descent because of his habit of losing races just this year but he was cornering with a knife between his teeth, attacking every angle. It was all the more impressive because as the chase group swelled behind it did not seem to slow, riders were doing long pulls as the rain kept pouring.
Finally Rodriguez had time to sit up and celebrate. He threw his water bottle high into the air as if to return a few drops back to the sky. He won the race, becoming the first Spaniard to win the Tour of Lombardy and only the fourth to win a monument and in the post-race press conference stated “this is important victory of my career“.
Was this a great race?
Viewers could follow the gradual war of attrition. We did not see the big names take turns to attack nor even Rodriguez’s move. But for the riders it was a hard day of constant effort and attention. Each of the 54 finishes deserves to be saluted. Sometimes in these conditions hidden details like tyre pressure or the choice of clothing can play a role in who is there or not for the last hour. But this time the Muro di Sormano prompted a selection with more than 80km to go. Sadly the rain and narrow roads added to this.
With Bradley Wiggins already talking about 2013 Joaquim Rodriguez is certain to finish the year at the top of UCI World Tour rankings. But arguably this win was a bigger achievement. He’s come close in the Giro and Vuelta, each time using what the Spanish call repechos, steep ramps, to take the lead. He did the same today and kept his nerve on the descent to take the win.