Across northern Italy it’s been vendemmia time, the grape harvest. This time Vincenzo Nibali picked, pressed and bottled Thibaut Pinot to win the tour of Lombardy, reeling in the Frenchman on the climb to Civiglio and dropping him on the descent to ride solo into Como. It was Nibali’s second win in the race and if many expected the result it was thrilling to watch.
It took a good 4okm before a move went clear and from this Mathias Le Turnier of Cofidis was the last survivor as he was swept up just outside the Madonna del Ghisallo chapel. The early break being reeled in with 65km to mattered because it meant the road was open to fresh attacks and Le Turnier was caught by Mickaël Chérel and Laurens De Plus with the likes of Primož Roglič and Jesus Herrada chasing behind. The racing moved up a gear even if the big names were wisely sat tight.
The Muro di Sormano was once a fearful addition to the race but it’s a better spectacle to ride up or even to read about than to watch a race on because the steep slopes render attacks impossible, the sheer force needed to accelerate by 2-3km/h is too costly. So it looks like the group are huddled. This race had rider data but the graphics don’t help tell the story of the effort so well, displaying the absolute numbers with little context.
Sadly Laurens De Plus’s crash was all too graphic. Chérel had led over the top of the Colma di Sormano with De Plus in pursuit and one bend Chérel wobbled while seconds later De Plus locked up the back wheel, slid and flipped over the barriers and plunged down the terraced hillside and for a moment viewers could only imagine how far below the ground was for him to land, shades of Jan Raas descending the Cipressa in 1984 when he was found in an olive tree. De Plus will be ok but Jan Bakelants of Ag2r La Mondiale would crash and if it wasn’t on TV he too was taken to hospital as were others like Simone Petilli and Daniel Martinez.
Once the peloton made it safely down to the lake shore Philippe Gilbert attacked with 35km to go. A race winning move? With hindsight no but remember his long raid in the Tour of Flanders? Nobody could give him room and he was marked by BMC’s De Marchi as FDJ led the chase into Como and the start of the decisive climb to Civiglio. Early on the likes of Dan Martin were dropped and Adam Yates was at the back of the group. Yates has been known to dangle on the back but this time he was being ejected by the pace set by FDJ’s David Gaudu and Rudy Molard. Gianni Moscon attacked and was joined by Sam Oomen with Thibaut Pinot bridging across, the old man. Was Pinot chasing down Moscon a vendetta? We don’t know but it made sense too, the Frenchman is not an explosive climber known for searing accelerations, he tends to pace himself and making this short climb as long as possible suited him. Whatever the reason or the tactics it set off alarm bells and this was when the race was being decided. Vincenzo Nibali gave chase with Rigoberto Urán, Egan Bernal, Davide Villella and Nairo Quintana joining in. Pinot attacked again and was reeled in by Nibali only “never two without three” say the French and Pinot took off for the third time and got a good gap. Domenico Pozzovivo tried to chase and it all felt like May again as the same cast of riders chased each other around Italy, only Ilnur Zakarin and Tom Dumoulin were missing. With Pinot 15 seconds up the road Nibali went in person and blasted past Pozzovivo in that low characteristic tuck, hands on the brake hoods and arms bent at right angles like a waiter ferrying an invisible tray. Only Pinot was the dish and Nibali attacked him over the top of the climb to lead down the descent.
Pinot a bad descender? It’s one of those tropes that exists because millions saw him in the 2013 Tour de France and it stuck despite railing descents in the Vuelta weeks later or finishing third on the podium in the 2014 Tour and so on. Still he lost seconds to Nibali between Civiglio and Como, not bad descending but still not able to follow a virtuoso like Nibali. Once Nibali got a gap he wasn’t coming back, in the moment you wondered if the pair would be better suited by cooperating on the flat roads to Como but Nibali must have believed he was the strongest and there were no strong teams waiting to bring him back. He was away once again just like in 2015. Rigoberto Urán gave chase briefly but faded.
Auvergne volcano Julian Alaphilippe took an impressive second place. He’s got the sprint in his legs to have sat back and waited but not the head, instead he went clear late on the final climb to San Fermo where he caught and dropped Pinot to collect second place. This is pure Alaphilippe who told L’Equipe on Saturday that he doesn’t bother racing with a powermeter… just as he doesn’t bother training with one either. Should he be more calculating in races? Perhaps but he’s still 25 and it’s a matter of time until he picks off his first major classics win.
Ditto Gianni Moscon who was active on the climbs and won the sprint for third place ahead of an unhappy Alexis Vuillermoz but there was nothing outrageous. Moscon’s been controversial several times this season and for good reason but this now means he’s in a similar spot to Nacer Bouhanni and riders prior like Djamolidine Abdoujaparov or Graeme Brown who only had to deviate marginally in a sprint to attract criticism from their peers, the media and fans. So Moscon’s tangle with Alexis Vuillermoz in the finishing sprint meant more controversy.
The pre-race favourite wins in the same manner as he did the last time yet this was an exciting race with suspense and action in the finish and all with the backdrop of achingly beautiful scenery. Lombardia never throws up a surprise winner – Oliver Zaugg in 2011 as the exception to prove the rule – because of the select parcours and distance so there’s rarely any doubting the manner of the victory but this was a decisive and indisputable win for Nibali, a capolavoro claimed the Italian media, a masterpiece. His team were strong when it counted, he was the fastest up the climb to Civiglio as well as down it and he had the energy to keep going on the flat too. Pinot didn’t make the podium – fifth place – but made the race with his attacks and he ennobles Nibali’s win. It was one thing for Nibali to ride away but catching Pinot on the climb and then dropping him added to the visual spectacle.
As the season draws to close talk already turns to 2018 and RAI television were asking Nibali about his plans for 2018 and both Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the World Championships are of interest, presumably with a grand tour or even two along the way but this wasn’t mentioned. He’ll turn 33 soon and maybe his thoughts are turning to the missing lines on his palmarès? It’s not far-fetched, he crossed the finish line gesturing 5-0 with his fingers to celebrate his 50th career win. With many editions of the World Championships offering softer courses it’ll be interesting to see just how many climbers and stage race specialists focus on Innsbruck next year as an elusive chance to wear the rainbow jersey.