The Race of the Falling Leaves

Sunday 6th October 2013, Bergamo – Lecco (242km)

The Giro di Lombardia (more recently known as Il Lombardia) is very much an Italian affair. Sixty-seven home winners out of a hundred and six editions of the race show how seriously they take it, and the great Fausto Coppi, of course, holds the individual record with five career wins. This ‘climbers classic’ is known as ‘la classica delle foglie morte’ (the Race of the Falling Leaves) and is a traditional autumn fixture. It’s also the final one-day classic of the season.

Giro di Lombardia
Giro di Lombardia

Added romance comes with the traditional climb up the Madonna del Ghisallo – the most famous climb of the race, and also the name given to a medieval apparition who Pope Pious XII more recently declared to be the patron saint of cyclists. The climb itself is no pushover – over 10.6 km long with an average gradient of 6.2%.

On top of the climb sits a tiny chapel that is one part celebration of the sport, and one part shrine to cyclists living and dead. If you’re that way inclined, it seems to contain the very soul of Italian cycling.

Inside is a variety of memorabilia, but perhaps most poignantly it is the final resting place of the wrecked bike of Fabio Casartelli – the Italian who was killed tragically in the Tour de France of 1995 – and whose death is still felt in Italian cycling circles. In memory of another who died young, a solemn framed photo commemorates the troubled Marco Pantani, and an eternal flame burns for all cyclists, famous or otherwise, who died before their time.

Madonna del Ghisallo
Madonna del Ghisallo

Although the route of the race has changed regularly over the years the Madonna del Ghisallo is a fixture, but the decisive climb this year may well be the Villa Vergano, which summits less than 10km from the finish in Lecco (after more than 230km of racing). Although not the toughest climb of the day it will surely prove a launch-pad for Rodriguez, Nibali, or one of the other big hitters to make a bid for glory.

Giro di Lombardia Finish
Giro di Lombardia Finish

Despite dominating the race over the years, it could be said that the Italians are due a win, with their most recent victory coming from Damiano Cunego in 2008; the last of an eight year Italian winning streak, and win number three for Cunego. So who is in contention for 2013?

Outside Italy there would surely be no more popular winner than ‘Purito’ Rodriguez. The punchy Spanish climber won in 2012, and was cruelly pushed into silver medal position at this years World Championships in Tuscany by Portugal’s Rui Costa (and, some would say, his own team-mate Alejandro Valverde).

Costa will use the race as his first chance to pull on the rainbow jersey so we can expect him to try and put on a show, and other big names confirmed along with Rodriguez and Costa are Nairo Quintana, Robert Gesink,  Alberto Contador, Dan Martin, and home favourites Vincenzo Nibali and Ivan Basso.

Purito Rodriguez
Purito Rodriguez

However, many others were victims of the treacherous Tuscan roads at the World Championships just a week before this battle in Lombardy; after a spectacular crash Team Sky’s Rigoberto Uran is doubtful for what could be his final race for the team. Definitely not racing, among others, will be Vuelta Espana winner Chris Horner, and Samuel Sanchez of doomed Basque outfit Euskaltel-Euskadi.

Whoever triumphs in this final classic of the season will have to earn it, as the race often descends into the kind of last-man-standing battle that might suit a determined and highly motivated hardman like Purito…but who knows? If the course is swept with the same weather that we saw at this years world championships, and indeed at last years Giro di Lombardia, we might see thrills, spills, crashes, and a grim struggle through the mountains of Lombardy.

After the extreme weather conditions which have accompanied so many of the big races this year, that might just be an appropriate end to this years classics season.

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