Tadej Pogačar and Fausto Masnada come into the final straight together and surely nobody knew who was going to win. It was only when Pogačar wound up the sprint very late and Masnada couldn’t respond that the race was won.
A fast start, no wildcard teams punched clear in a pre-pranzo move. The big teams traded moves and it was only on the slopes in Sormano to the Ghisallo sanctuary that a move went clear and if it had a Bardiani-CSF and a Vini Zabù rider present, Eolo-Kometa still missed it. Still move never got much more than five minutes and with Israel deploying Chris Froome, Deceuninck-Quickstep and Jumbo-Visma lent a rider from time to time too.
The climbs came and went and the innovation of having live TV from start to finish probably wasn’t wowing the audiences. If the Women’s Tour had TV coverage or the Tour de Vendée started earlier you’d be forgiven for zapping to another channel. Still teams were beginning to make moves on the climbs and with 84km to go one went clear with Pavel Sivakov, Ben Tullet, George Bennet, Neilson Powless… and Fausto “The EelA” Masnada, a local who’d ridden through his home town of Brembilla moments before. But this was one move of many, nobody could pull away.
On to the decisive Passo di Ganda and the sun was coming out, a pale autumnal light but still things were warming up. Tiesj Benoot got to work and riders were being dropped early, including Remco Evenepoel. Once he pulled over Ineos hit the front and then Vincenzo Nibali had a go. This was early but he was trying to provoke a move and once he was caught he went again, taking Pogačar, Romain Bardet and Pavel Sivakov with him.
Then Pogačar went solo, his pace too much for the others. Behind the chase group lacked riders to lead the chase. Fausto Masnada surged clear, there was now 30 seconds to Pogačar and closing that was a lot to ask, especially as he could also be of use to Alaphilippe for the valley roads to come.
Masnada took a few seconds on Pogačar on the climb but closed the gap on the descent, using the Selvino hairpins to take back a second here and there and catch the Slovenian by the foot of the climb. At first he started sharing the work, then it looked like the orders came through the radio and he sat on Pogačar’s wheel. Meanwhile the chase group was some 45 seconds behind.
The chasers were stuck in a classic stand-off, each wanting to close the gap but also wanting to keep something in reserve for the finish in Bergamo because a crucial selection had been made. We had Primož Roglič, Jonas Vinegaard, David Gaudu, Michael Woods, Romain Bardet, Adam Yates, Alejandro Valverde and Julian Alaphilippe: first class season ticket holders. While Alaphilippe could sit back and watch them, only Roglič was the only one to have a team mate in Vingegaard and it wasn’t enough. Gaudu was using the international sign language of “keep turning” to the others which is always a sign that nobody was working together. For a moment though things were rolling well and the gap seemed to fall below 30 seconds but they couldn’t keep it going and suddenly they started trading attacks.
Up ahead it was status quo, Pogačar and Masnada sat on his wheel. As they rode into Bergamo the only thing Pogačar could do was choose what pace he wanted to attack the final climb, easy enough not to be in the red for the sprint, hard enough to keep the pressure on Masnada. Pogačar tried an attack but looked back to find Masnada still there. Masnada had a gone on the descent but couldn’t open a gap.
It set up a nailbiter of a sprint. You can try and look back for clues as to who was going to win but this is is all ex post rationalisation. Of course Pogačar can win a sprint, see Liège in April. Of course Pogačar was quicker, look at his palmarès. Of course Pogačar was going to be fresher given his versatility. Only, of course not, Masnada had been sitting on for 20km, Pogačar’s acceleration on the final ramp through Bergamo didn’t deliver anything, and the stats show that when a Quickstepper comes in to the finish they often have the alchemy to turn a podium position into gold and Masnada had won the U23 version of this race too.
Pogačar left it late muscling a large gear. Masnada stood on the pedals but couldn’t do more, finally the result was obvious. Behind Roglič and Yates had lost ground when Bardet attacked on the cobbles but the pair sped back in the final straight, surged past and Yates came around to take third place and a small revenge for the Milano-Torino result earlier in the week.
A slow burn after the Worlds and Paris-Roubaix which had fireworks for hours on end, Lombardia was more traditional with a procession of sapping climbs before the action began for the final hour. The Passo di Ganda saw fireworks and Pogačar’s solo move never felt inevitable, he had a slender lead on a substantial group and then had to cope with a passenger in Masnada.
Perhaps the significance was not in the moment but the history. Pogačar slides alongside Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault as a Tour winner landing Lombardia, and joins Merckx as the only rider to win Liege-Tour-Lombardia in the same year, and he’s just turned 23. Unlike them he makes it look so easy, he’s not bent over the bars nor snarling, instead tufts of hair poke from his helmet and seconds after finishing he has a cherubic face, like the boy on a Kinder Bueno packet as L’Equipe once put it. Eras are different but Pogačar also won the UAE Tour (as in he was on top in February), won Tirreno-Adriatico and took his home Tour of Slovenia too. But before we get carried away, he’s got a long way to go to match Coppi, Merckx and Hinault. But he’s on his way, he’s won practically every appointment that mattered to him, and got a bronze in the Olympic road race too. In a season where Alaphilippe, van Aert, van der Poel and Roglič have at times grabbed headlines, Pogačar surely finishes ahead of them. You might not know the words to the Zdravljica, Slovenian’s national anthem… but you may know the melody by now.