Religion and sport combine once a year in Italy as the Tour of Lombardy passes the Ghisallo chapel. This year’s edition was a communion between Vincenzo Nibali and Italian cycling fans. With 16km to go Nibali attacks on the descent from Civiglio and uses his descending skills to distance a select group of climbers.
An early break of 11 riders endured heavy downpours and began to fragment on the Ghisallo climb with 70km to go. Behind a counter-attack including Tim Wellens, Michał Kwiatkowski, T-J Slagter, Zdeněk Štybar and Robert Gesink went clear of the bunch. Astana had been doing a lot of work all day and led the bunch up the climb with Nibali always visible near the front.
Onto the Muro di Sormano and it was everyone for themselves, a private battle of power to weight ratios. Kwiatkowski was the first to catch the two survivors of the breakaway, Cesare Benedetti and Marco Canola, and Tim Wellens was close. Wellens and Kwiatkowski linked up to lead the race. Too much too soon? Apply hindsight and Wellens let Tony Gallopin rest before surging to seventh place. Back in the moment and being in front on these tricky roads is an advantage. The region looks stunning from the helicopter shots but ride these roads and you’ll soon see just how densely populated the area, the twisting roads are pounded by traffic and full of irregularities like bends that tighten up more than expected, sunken inspection covers, cracks in the road and more. Many distanced on the Sormano could not make it back on the descent.
In the valley a group of 22 riders were left. Astana led the chase or rather they kept the pace up as the lead two were in sight. Other teams had numbers, for example Etixx-Quickstep, Ag2r La Mondiale and Team Sky but they all sat tight as the race approached Como and started the climb to Civiglio. Kwiatkowski was caught immediately and with the road clear of obstacles Nibali began a series of soft attacks designed to test his rivals, aided by team mate Diego Rosa. Rosa and Nibali haven’t been perfect team mates, Nibali was critical when Rosa left him behind in the Strade Bianche race earlier this year but the Sicilian’s moans were probably more a complaint about his own form, the capo dropped by his gregario. Now Rosa was the perfect team mate as he shut down moves from Thibaut Pinot.
By now there were only seven riders in contention: Nibali and Rosa, Pinot, Esteban Chaves, Dani Moreno, Alejandro Valverde and Mikel Nieve, the later riding with his knees sticking out as he tried to force the pedals round. Nibali launched a big attack, starting near the back of the group and the kind of acceleration last seen when he grabbed hold of the Astana team car in the Vuelta and was towed away from the chase group. As big as the attack looked Nibali was brought back and they rode crested the climb together.
Then Nibali attacked again just as the descent started. It’s likely everyone else was cooked and wanted a moment to get their breath back but had someone found the energy, would it have been worth trying to respond to Nibali’s attack? Jump on his wheel for a moment and he’d drop you on the next corner. These were scenes reminiscent of Peter Sagan’s drop off La Rochette into Gap at the end of Stage 16 the Tour de France. You could say Nibali was cornering like a motorbike but he was faster, having to squeeze past one moto on the way down. Nibali was sitting on the top tube, the low tuck is proven aerodynamically but try it yourself and it’s uncomfortable and unsafe. But this was all or nothing for Nibali, at times staying in the tuck as he swept through the bends. It meant he’d got over ten seconds on the descent, not much but just enough.
The others in the group were watching each other in a classic stalemate: chase and you help your rivals. It takes time to agree to collaborate, plus Diego Rosa was still there. There was the added complication of Dani Moreno, was he riding for himself or has he signed with Movistar and so helping his future jefe Valverde? Valverde meanwhile wasn’t helping himself, perhaps he simply didn’t have it, but he was sitting tight and seemed to be gambling on a sprint finish that wasn’t going to happen.
The gap was 40 seconds as they reached the start of the final climb to San Fermo della Battaglia. The chasing climbers resorted to instinct and started attacking, first Pinot and then Moreno who went past Pinot and closed the gap to a tiring Nibali to 14 seconds. But reports kept coming through of 14 seconds, as if Moreno could not get closer. Over the top and Moreno was timed at just 11 seconds but now it wasn’t about timing but style and risks. Nibali was using the whole road and adopting the low tuck while Moreno was descending with his hands on top of the brake hoods. The gap went out and in no time Nibali’s arms went up as he celebrated the win, a gust of wind sending an Italian flag to his chest and it stuck there as if Italy had embraced him again.
A thriller in the last 20km. Last year’s edition wasn’t as good with the race only coming alive as they raced up the slopes to Bergamo’s città alta with a few kilometres left. Here we saw attack after attack with Nibali, Rosa, Pinot and Chaves in the mix. Nibali then delivered a maniac descent to keep millions of Italians on the edge of their seats as he rode the edge of his tires’ grip on the descents. It was a comprehensive win for Astana too, they set the pace for much of the day and had Rosa in the final move when everyone else was isolated.
Nibali needed that. His humiliating exit from the Vuelta was the farce that hid the tragedy of a lost season: transparent in Tirreno-Adriatico despite his billing among the Big Four; invisible in the Ardennes classics save for face-saving premature attack in the Amstel; off the pace in the Dauphiné and reduced to salvaging a stage win in the Tour de France. Today doesn’t remedy the structural issues of a whole season but it does mark a change in fortunes.
Dani Moreno held on for second place, proof he can deliver when not subjugated to work for Joaquim Rodriguez? Probably not as he’s won three stages of the Vuelta and the Flèche Wallonne for himself. Thibaut Pinot was third, aggressive on the climbs he might have used up a lot of energy but he wasn’t going to match Nibali on the descent and the podium is huge for a rider who is still 25. FDJ believe in him so much that they’ve stopped sponsoring Francis Mourey, France’s Monsieur Cyclocross, in order to spend the money on windtunnels, training camps and stage race recons. When Marc Madiot surrenders cyclocross on the altar of sports science something big has happened.