The Moment Il Lombardia Was Won

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.

The Verdict
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.

23 thoughts on “The Moment Il Lombardia Was Won”

  1. I think the sport has matured past the point where a supremely gifted rider could excel across all terrains the way Merckx did in his prime, but it really seems that Pogačar is developing into that level of champion both in terms of mindset and physical ability. It feels like a privilege to watch him.

    • Yeah, whilst he’s won Liege and Lombardia with the Tour this year I doubt he’ll be winning Flanders and Roubaix alongside the Tour next year, but who knows. Who’d bet against him making an attack stick on the Poggio though? A Giro/Tour double could be a goer too. Presumably though if he got bored of the GT’s and the hilly classics his engine could be recalibrated for the cobbles.

      • I’d love to see him have a go at both Flanders & P-R, and he may fancy it himself; however, I doubt his current team would allow him.
        Similarly, his twitter page used to show him flying off a drop on a MTB; that’s not happening either.
        One understands sticking to what suits you, but I love seeing riders test themselves outside their comfort zone.

      • I think Inr Rng is hinting at Pogacar’s season-long durability also.
        The most recent rider to dominate the GTs, Froome, was really a Summer bloomer whereas Pogacar (both Slovenians for that matter) are hardy perennials.
        We perhaps saw the change back to this wider approach when Froome did the Giro / Tour double but, by then, he was probably a little long in the tooth to really build on that.
        All the young/er riders now, in fact, are very much to be seen throughout the season and as often as not in very good form.
        I don’t think that any of the two Slovenians would risk the ‘Wacky Races’ that is Paris-Roubaix, but a tilt at Flanders may be a possibility.
        I do love watching Pogacar racing, he just does his thing and to hell with it 😀

      • If anyone’s up for “giving it a go” at all the events on the calendar (ala Merckx) before he hangs up the wheels, my guess is Pogacar. Or maybe MVdP or WVA before they’re done? Why not?

    • I wouldn’t say the sport has matured, i’d say it’s finally reaching adolescence. I suspect there’ll be 4-5 Pogacars before the decade’s out, as data-driven advances in training and talent development programs become more optimised. It’s also becoming a more respectable career option for anybody with a basic athletic aptitude.

  2. You surely watch much more bike races than I do, so you have probably seen Masnada win a sprint for the win. I can’t remember a single successful attempt to win one. Says someone who has really liked him as a racer for years and thoroughly enjoyed him showing today what he’s capable of even in this very elite company.
    So for me DQT’s tactics and Masnada’s effort to catch Pogi made perfect sense until Alaphilippe didn’t contribute to the chase because then the outcome was inevitable. There just was no way Fausto would beat Pogi in a sprint. And Fausto also knew that, so he didn’t even try.
    If you’re unsure about your sprint with regards to your competitor and you sit on his wheel you want him to start his sprint early especially after such a long hard race. So you either leave a little space inspiring him to start his sprint early. Or you make some fake jump early enough at around 250 m to make your competitor think you’re opening your sprint so that he starts his sprint earlier than he would otherwise do.
    Masnada didn’t do anything like this. Sitting on the wheel of your competitor is a huge advantage in a sprint but only if you use that advantage early enough. When you start your sprint at 100 m to go it turns into a disadvantage no matter how tired or fresh you or your competitor are.

    • Alaphilippe didn’t get third so perhaps DST knew what the result would be so Alaphilippe sitting on was the perfect tactic. Stifled the others and gave them a guaranteed 2nd with a possible first.

      • You suppose he wanted to get third? I don’t think so.
        He knew that he had annoyed the others playing the destructive watchdog in their group. Piling up on that anger by then sprinting for the remaining podium spot would be considered as very bad style, unworthy for a world champion and certainly unworthy for Alaphilippe. He doesn’t consider other riders as foes but as competitors. So he certainly doesn’t want them to consider him as a foe.

        Furthermore I suppose he’s at a point of his career where he doesn’t sprint for a third place anymore.

        • So you suppose Alaphilippe didn’t contribute to the chase (1) because he is Alahilippe (whatever that entails in your view), (2) because he was silly, stupid or just plain naïvely optimistic enough to believe that the others would continue to chase nevertheless, (3) because he didn’t want to give anyone in that group a slightest chance to take the win by defeating him in a sprint, (4) because he thought the Slovenian youngster would win anyway (and could’ve gone faster if the chaser had been anyone but Masnada whose chances of winning any sprint anywhere are smaller than that of a snow ball surviving a weekend in Sahara), or (6) eh, other?

          I think it is one of the most fascinating aspects of road cycling how one group manages to work together and succeeds in a chase even when the interests and abilities of the riders involved vary – and how a very similar group in a quite similar situation seems to unanimously choose to throw all chances of winning away. Often I’m left perplexed by what exactly and why this or that happened, but in my humble opinion it’s less seldom than we perhaps think that it is the action or non-action of a certain rider that decides the outcome.

          If I had to pick someone who single-handedly sabotaged the chase, I wouldn’t name Alaphilippe but the DS in the DQS car – but I must admit I’m a fan boy : D

          • The race was lost for the chasers when, presumably still knackered after the climb, the didn’t follow Masnada. They let Vingegaard lead down the descent because JV were the only team with two riders and by the laws of the cycling gods that means they have to chase. From TV footage Vingegaard didn’t look to be going as fast as Pogacar and Masnada, and the clock backed that up. Vingegaard had already been dropped and had probably already done a bit of chasing and working for Roglic. At that point the other leaders and Roglic should’ve taken on the responsibility themselves instead of relying on some guy who is knackered and has no record of success in long one day races to close down a superior rider. If they had worked, and if Alaphilippe had just sat at the back and not disrupted, it probably would’ve worked. It reminded me a bit of ‘that Giro stage’ that Froome won when Pinot and Dumoulin put all their hopes in Sebastian Reichenbach chasing him down.

          • Having a teammate up the road is a good excuse for not contributing to a chase, but it is a very poor team tactic when the probability that the teammate will win is close to 0 and the probability that not contributing to the chase will effectively sabotage it is close to 1.
            Assuming of course that Alaphilippe had the legs to outsprint or otherwise defeat the other riders, possibly with a little tactical help from his teammate.
            My hunch and my guess was that Alaphilippe didn’t feel he had the legs and told his DS and hence the decision to bet on Masnada. Or that his DS had somehow inferred that Pogacar had al burned all his matchsticks and Masnada had a very real chance of winning – and that Alaphilippe, knowing that he was already at the limit, had no problem with that and played along.

  3. On another – but timely and environmental – note: Tour of the falling leaves? Tour of the flourishing green woodland, more like. There was hardly a brown leaf let alone a fallen one. I remember riding the sportive they ran the day after the pros, about fifteen years ago, and the scene was completely different.

    • It’s moved about on the calendar a bit, usually just in October but it’s been a late October event in the past. Plus some poetic licence (“Hell of the North”, “La Classicissima” etc) probably helped too.

    • The verdant scenery struck me too, an odd hint of trees turning golden but no more than that.
      Didn’t see a single fallen leaf on the roads, lol.

  4. I enjoyed the race. I’ve been ranting for years that the Muro di Sormano and Civiglio were too steep and too slow to be anything other than a test of who has the fastest minimum speed. This was better in that Pogacar attacked. It would’ve been better if it all came back together for the Bergamo Alta climb but the chasers couldn’t organise a p1ss up in a brewery as they say.
    Pogacar is definitely looking like being a generational super talent, or even a once in a few generations rider. Everyone always looks for clues as to why these riders are how they are. With Pogacar I think he looks unusually broad across the shoulders and chest, he looks a bit like an amateur in amongst the weedy pros. Presumably his chest houses some prodigious lungs.

  5. Dan Lloyd was convinced Pogacar would win the sprint with ease, although you never know after such a long race and I had never knowingly seen Masnada sprint. He was dead right though.

    Il Lombardia is a beautiful race whatever but this edition did feel a little flat to me compared to others, I don’t really know why. I prefer the Como finish, although the year Chavez won was Bergamo and I enjoyed that one.

    Hats off to Pogacar though – he is a phenomenal athlete and it’s a great time for cycling compared to the past 20/30 years where it felt like the GT champions largely ignored the classics.

  6. “Tadej Pogačar and Fausto Masnada come into the final straight together and surely nobody knew who was going to win.” NOBODY? A fantasy vs reality as nobody I know thought Masnada had a chance after he failed to ditch Pogacar prior to the final sprint. All of the folks around me on the final climb into Bergamo hoped that somehow, some way the local boy would come good but nobody would dare make a claim that he could/would.
    As to Lulu. what part of bike racing 101 do folks not understand? He’s got a teammate up front so he’s not gonna do a thing in the chase while Masnada can decline to work with Pogacar since he’s got a teammate (in rainbow stripes) behind. What would the keyboard lions be typing if Lulu had towed the group back to Masnada/Pogacar but somehow failed to win? IMHO DQS had to let the homeboy give it a go and it made for a great race, at least if you were at the roadside like I was :

  7. No free to air Lombardia in Australia but we do get the final of the Paris -Tours. An obviously depleted field but the romp through the vineyards is fun to watch.

  8. I actually thought the race was done when Pogacar attacked with everyone on their limits and he seemed to have much more. But then Masnada came back with the benefit of local knowledge and it looked on again. But the way Pogacar closed down his attack over the top of the final hill just looked so easy that he obviously had more power left, plus his faster finish and, so, it seemed done again. Tbh I would have, ex post, fallen off the sofa if Masnada had beaten him! 😉

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