In the late autumnal sunshine on the Civiglio climb Bauke Mollema’s attacked and quickly got a gap as the pre-race picks hesitate, each privately hoping someone else would close him down. On a day when the sports headlines were dominated by Eliud Kipchoge’s paced marathon run, here was Lombardia reminding us that cycling is a relative contest rather than a test of absolute performance.
The early break splintered as soon as it hit the climb of the Madonna del Ghisallo with Fausto Masnada going first past the chapel and its peel of bells and Toms Skujiņš linked up with him over the top. The pair made it together to the next climb of the Sormano but were overhauled by Bob Jungels who was out to build up a buffer ahead of the steep climb. Behind the familiar sight of Team Ineos on the front of the bunch. The Muro di Sormano shattered the field but only just. It’s severe – Jungels went in with 30 seconds’ lead, and out over a minute down – but a sizeable group of riders crested the top together and coalesced on the descent. Only who was there? For a long time it was impossible to know who’d made this group because the descent is too technical for the TV cameras go to near the riders. It seems pointless to transmit live watts – spoiler: elite riders pedal hard – when the basics like identifying the riders in the front group elude the production.
Tim Wellens and Emanuel Buchmann went clear on the coastal road and let their team mates behind sit tight as Jumbo-Visma took up the chase and deployed three riders to race into the foot of the Civiglio climb. Was Primož Roglič going to attack? It looked like it but the first thing to happen on the climb was Vincenzo Nibali coming to a halt after a touch of wheels and then being dropped. David Gaudu and Michael Woods launched on the steep section but their move didn’t last long.
Suddenly Alejandro Valverde attacked, an unusual move for someone who often surfs the wheels but perhaps he sensed it was time to force a selection? The others couldn’t afford to let him go and Valverde was brought back but the chase split the group and several riders were distanced. One was Bauke Mollema but he was able to claw his way back just as the others took a breather. Moments later Mollema made his move just when others couldn’t and just when he could. Helped by the presence of team mate Giulio Ciccone he launched on the flattest part of the climb meaning he could power away like a time triallist rather than match the others in a climbing contest. With 18km to go he quickly got a gap as the group spread across the road, a visible clue nobody wanted to chase. A pro for a decade Mollema’s an infrequent winner but once he gets a gap he’s very hard to pull back and 10 of his 12 career wins until had been obtained solo. Perched diagonally on the bike and nodding like an oil pump this not the most obvious tribute to the mellifluous Felice Gimondi but it was working and his lead quickly reached 30 seconds, and then over a minute as the TV screen graphics got too excited.
The chase behind was more a collection of solo efforts. Pierre Latour, Michael Woods, Roglič, Valverde and Egan Bernal all launched moves rather than swap turns on the front. That’s the benefit of a move like Mollema’s, the others had to cooperate to bring him back but whoever worked the hardest in the chase stood to lose the most. Mollema had time to enjoy the final kilometre, sit up and celebrate while behind Valverde came in for his third second place ahead of Bernal and Fuglsang.
Last year’s race with the action from the Sormano onwards set the bar high and this year’s vintage wasn’t as bubbly. It wasn’t until the Civiglio climb that the outcome of the race was in play. Mollema perhaps had one card to play all day but got his timing just right. The more the others stomped on the pedals behind, the more certain his win got as it showed the cohesion had gone out of the group while Mollema could stop thinking about tactics and focus on trajectory instead. Mollema lands his biggest win and his most valuable, a Monument he’ll be remembered for and it’s been a big year, he gets 500 UCI points for this and was fifth in the Giro this year with 380 points. The point here isn’t to compare these results nor their points, more Mollema is an invaluable Swiss army knife for his Trek-Segafredo team who can have a tilt at the Giro in May, start as a super mountain domestique for Ritchie Porte in July and then bag a Monument in October.