Despite the nearly 250km length of this year’s Tour of Lombardy, tension was all but palpable from the word go as riders fought for the last taste of glory in this year’s pro World Tour calendar. The race of the fallen leaves marks the end of many riders’ seasons, and those with something left to prove would have to go all out in Lombardia if they wanted to end the season on a high.
No surprise, then, that a strong breakaway would head off the front not long after the wave of the starting flag. Top candidates in the 11-strong break included Simon Geschke and Marco Canola, fast-man Oscar ‘The Cat’ Gatto, and French time-trial champion Jérôme Coppel. The peloton, though, saw no threat in their ranks, and let the gap stretch out to a maximum of 8 minutes before they began the process of reeling them back in; they rode on the front for over 150km before the bunch turned up the heat and the gap began to simmer down.
Il Lombardia’s lynchpin, this year, was set to be the Mura di Sormano, a gruelling climb that featured 25%-plus sections, and peaked out with 50km to go. But before that, the riders had to tackle the Madonna del Ghisallo, and it was here that the race warmed up. The breakaway were practically on the verge of being caught up the climb, and their situation only worsened when a strong and select group of riders leapt clear of the peloton and gave chase. They included powerhouses Michal Kwiatkowski, Tim Wellens, Tom Jelte Slagter, and Robert Gesink. The Astana-led peloton was hot on their heels over the summit and down the other side, and the riders were all separated by less than a minute at the foot of the Sormano. Astana, indeed, continued to set the pace of the race for much of this climb, and we were even treated to the sight of team-leader Nibali pulling at the front of the bunch, displaying eagerness and ability in equal measure. But as the ascent progressed, and the early breakaway was mopped up, the race began to truly fracture. A strong effort by Michal Kwiatkowski saw him go clear of the small chasing group, taking Lotto’s Tim Wellens with him. The rest of the group were reabsorbed thanks to work from Astana and Movistar.
Kwiatkowski now out of the rainbow-stripes of the world champion’s jersey, set a steady pace over the summit, and Wellens worked well with him. On the long and treacherous descent, they both worked hard to maximise a slender advantage and took some risks to stay ahead. By the time the descent was over, there were around forty kilometres remaining: a 10km flat run to the foot of the Civiglio, which was quickly followed by the San Fermo della Battaglia, and then the final 5km descent to the line. It was in the long flat valley between Sormano and Civiglio that Kwiatkowski’s hopes began to fade.
With Astana chasing hard, the two leaders had only a few seconds by the time they hit the Civiglio. Almost immediately they were both reabsorbed into a 20-strong group of favourites, Kwiatkowski’s season effectively coming to a close with a face of resignation as the forces of Astana tore past him. Others riders in the lead group lost ground as the pace went higher and higher, thanks to pressure from Astana’s Diego Rosa on the front. The group included Daniel Moreno for Katusha, Orica’s Esteban Chaves, Sky’s Nieve and Henao, Valverde for Movistar, Thibaut Pinot for FDJ, and Vincenzo Nibali. There was no sign of last year’s winner, Dan Martin, nor of the two young Brits Adam and Simon Yates.
Each time Diego Rosa attacked, a different rider marked him. Henao brought him back, as did Nieve, and Chaves tried to go clear with him at one point, but, suffering from cramp at a crucial moment, the Colombian quickly faded and took with him Orica’s dreams of a win. A selection was being made for eventual victory, but, within a kilometre from the top, the most critical move of the race was about to surface. His lieutenants now spent, Nibali went off alone thanks to an explosive kick on the Civiglio’s upper slopes, quickly winding his way up the switchbacks and opening up a healthy gap for himself. Cresting first, he hit the difficult descent with all he had: his aero-tuck, which brought him right down onto the frame of his bike, would have rivalled Peter Sagan’s; he took every corner so fast and so tightly that it looked like his life depended upon it; and he spun a huge gear whenever he could, finding his absolute maximum speed. No one could come close to him on the descent, and he made his rival look like a group of slouches, slowly crawling down the hill after the plummeting Italian.
Meanwhile, Rosa was still present in the chasing group, and rode on the front for much of the downhill. Doing little other than getting in the way, he was proving himself loyal to the last as he helped Nibali keep a sizeable gap on the others, nearly 40 seconds by the base of the final climb. The chase was looking tired and bedraggled by the time it was on the San Fermo della Battaglia, but Nibali showed no signs of fading. In the bunch, attacks were not forthcoming, with riders eyeing one another and hoping one of their rivals would bridge the gap. In the end, Thibaut Pinot seized responsibility, kicking hard and fast into a tight corner to find himself a gap on all the riders save for Daniel Moreno. Working together, the pair took back a small amount of time on Nibali before Pinot (not known for his descending skills) lost ground on Moreno. Moreno rode wonderfully, practically leaping out of his seat on the last tight corners and working his was back up to within 14 seconds of Nibali. But the summit had arrived, and Nibali was once more preparing to throw his all into the descent.
To be fair to Moreno, he lost only a small amount of time on the last downhill run to the line, but Nibali’s descending form was spectacular. Down narrow and winding lanes he went, weaving round tight bends and using the full width of the road in his accelerations, he was stylish and powerful to the last. Coming into the line down a long and lonely stretch of road, his win was emphatic, and is only marginally marred by his undignified exit from the Vuelta this year. On top of his previous grand tour wins, the taking of this monument marks Nibali out as one of the best in the sport — no matter what we all feel about Astana as a team. Only Moreno and then Pinot could follow anywhere near Nibali, and both took respective second and third on the day, over twenty seconds after the Italian. Another fine victory at the end of a long and gruelling day of cycling — what more fitting end could there be to such a sensational season of cycling this year?