Just as the spring thaw heralds the arrival of cobbled racing in northern Europe early in the bike racing season, the change of leaves signals the coming of the final Monument at season’s end n Italy. It’s October, and that means it’s time for Il Lombardia.
The event’s place on the calendar, after all of the Grand Tours and the World Championships are in the rearview mirror, might not do it any favors in trying to capture fan attention at the end of a long season, but that doesn’t stop many of the biggest names in cycling from taking on the challenge. Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), and Remco Evenepoel (Soudal Quick-Step) will all be in attendance on Saturday eyeing one last big victory to close out their 2023 campaigns.
Those big names and the extremely challenging, climber-friendly course should ensure that we get a great show in the final Monument of the year. If you’re still not convinced to watch, you should know that the race also happens to be one of the most scenic events on the calendar. Here’s what you need to know about the route, the favorites, and more.
Il Lombardia is inevitably an autumnal jaunt through the beautiful region around Lake Como and in the foothills of the Italian Alps, but whether the race takes riders from Bergamo to Como or vice versa depends on the year, as organizers like to alternate the start and finish towns. Two years ago it was the Como to Bergamo route. Last year it was Bergamo-Como. This year, it’s back to Como-Bergamo. Pogačar has proven capable of winning the race in each configuration, having won both of the past two editions. More on that in a bit.
The 2023 race will take riders a total of 238 kilometers around the Como area. Along the way, they will do plenty of climbing. One of the major challenges of this race is the accumulated elevation gain. Unlike some of the other climber-friendly Classics, which generally tackle only short ascents of a few kilometers, Il Lombardia features some mid-length (7-11 km) uphill slogs, and over the course of the day, riders will rack up well over 4,000 meters of vertical.
The double whammy of the 11.6 km Passo della Crocetta and the steep upper ramps of the Zambla Alta, the latter crested with a little over 60 km to go, will signal crunch time for the contenders. After the Zambla Alta comes a fast descent to the foot of the 9.3 km Passo di Ganda, whose average gradient of over 7 percent will likely see it serve as a major battlefield for the contenders.
Following the Passo di Ganda is a long descent and then a stretch of flat before the final climbing challenge, the short but steep Colle Aperto (1.3 km at 6.9%). Should a small group of favorites arrive together onto the punchy climb, it is here that the final attacks will be launched before the downhill run to the finish line.
The favorites: Pogačar vs. Roglič vs. Evenepoel
Even just two days before Il Lombardia, the start list is still taking shape, but the big favorites have been confirmed, so we know enough to have the favorites conversation. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this race seems likely to be a battle of a big three, with all three of the top Ardennes Classics stars of the moment targeting this race. Tadej Pogačar is hunting his third straight win here, former Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner Primož Roglič is hoping to continue his excellent run of late-season form through the season’s final Monument, and two-time reigning Liège-Bastogne-Liège champ Remco Evenepoel is hoping to do the same.
Pogačar has the shortest odds and is the most obvious favorite given his track record in this race. He is the most likely to drop his two biggest rivals on the steep stuff, and his showings in the various run-up races suggest that he’s in fine form for the big one. Adam Yates, Marc Hirschi, Diego Ulissi, and Davide Formolo will give UAE options (and we’ll get to that in a bit).
Roglič has never won Il Lombardia, but he was imperious en route to victory at last Saturday’s Giro dell’Emilia, and he clearly has all the motivation in the world to prove just how strong he is as he prepares to leave the only WorldTour team he’s known. His tried-and-true tactic of holding onto his rivals before leaving them behind in the last kilometer may prove tricky on this course, but the motivation factor is real.
You could say the same for Evenepoel, who has been widely rumored to end up on another team next season, and who showed at the Vuelta a España that he will fight for any and all results he can achieve. Matching the climbing prowess of Pogačar and Roglič won’t be easy, but Evenepoel might be able to sneak away from the Slovenians with one of his trademark long-range moves.
The outsiders and a fond farewell
Adam Yates is having the season of his life, and that didn’t stop with his podium performance at the Tour de France. The 31-year-old Brit has always been a talented one-day racer, taking his breakthrough win all the way back in 2015 at the Clásica San Sebastián, and his talents were on full display at the GP Montréal last month. UAE could look to send him up the road early and see what happens.
Richard Carapaz has had a frustrating, injury-marred first season at EF Education-EasyPost, but the Olympic champ is an underrated threat in the one-days and he could be eyeing the Passo di Ganda for an attack from afar. Ditto for Ben Healy and Rigoberto Urán and former winner Esteban Chaves. With that array of contenders, EF looks like the under-the-radar team to watch in this race.
Soudal Quick-Step also has teamwide firepower. Behind Evenepoel, there are also Julian Alaphilippe and a clearly in-form Ilan Van Wilder as back-up options for a group of riders that wants to make a splash before the end of the season.
Last year’s runner-up Enric Mas (Movistar), Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious), Michael Woods (Israel-Premier Tech), Simon Yates (Jayco-AlUla), Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe), and Felix Gall and Ben O’Connor (AG2R Citroën) are others to watch, and then there’s the rider we’ve saved for last so as to bid him a proper farewell: Thibaut Pinot.
The 33-year-old Frenchman may never have delivered the Grand Tour performance that he and his Groupama-FDJ team dreamed possible after his early podium at the 2014 Tour de France, but nothing can take away his brilliant career as a stagehunter, a shining light for the hopes of French fans, and, of course, a Monument winner. Pinot loves racing in Italy and he celebrated the biggest one-day victory of his career at this very race back in 2018. He’s a pretty distant outsider here in 2023, but he’ll be worth watching just the same.
The Escape Collective star ratings
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐: Tadej Pogačar
⭐⭐⭐⭐: Primož Roglič, Remco Evenepoel
⭐⭐⭐: Adam Yates
⭐⭐: Michael Woods, Richard Carapaz, Simon Yates, Enric Mas, Aleksandr Vlasov
⭐: Thibaut Pinot, Ben Healy, Esteban Chaves, Rigoberto Urán, Julian Alaphilippe, Ilan Van Wilder, Marc Hirschi, Felix Gall, Mikel Landa, Ben O’Connor
As ever, we’re bringing in another analyst to break up the monotony of just one Escape Collective writer rambling on and on. Here’s what Abby Mickey and I talked about ahead of the race.
Dane Cash: Hi Abby! Let’s talk Lombardia. Do you think any of the “big three” has a big edge in this race?
Abby Mickey: Normally I would say that Pogačar is the strongest of the three on this course, but clearly Roglič is taking full advantage of his last days with Jumbo-Visma to win some races, and Evenepoel is a very much an unknown. He comes out of nowhere for things like this type of race. So I think it’s quite even actually.
DC: With apologies to those who like dueling takes, I think we are generally in agreement here. Pogačar is a fitting favorite with a slight edge but it’s not a big one, and while I think Evenepoel might normally be the third of three options, I also think he could benefit from the Slovenians watching each other. There’s no better long-range attacker in the peloton than Evenepoel and he could catch them napping.
AM: I do think that Pogačar has a little bit of an advantage maybe because he has Adam Yates, who is, as I said on the Pretty Serious Bike Racing podcast, having one hell of a year.
DC: That’s a good podcast. OK, beyond those names, who are your favorite outsiders?
AM: EF has Esteban Chaves who loves this race and his teammate Ben Healy as well who is a super exciting rider. You also have Michael Woods who is really hunting for that next big win and he loves this race and it’s really good for him. On the other hand, man, it’s crazy that Alaphilippe isn’t even, like, part of the conversation anymore. It’s crazy that two years ago, three years ago, we would have said he’s a favorite for the win.
DC: And now it seems like he might not even be the second best option on his own team for a race like this, with Ilan Van Wilder seeming to be in pretty good form right now. But maybe this is where Alaphilippe turns things around. Or maybe it’s another Frenchman who will sail off into the sunset in style.
AM: “The race of the falling leaves,” what a last race for Pinot to choose.
DC: It would definitely be a storybook ending and it’s hard to imagine it not being a popular win. We’ll see …
Dane Cash: Primož Roglič
Abby Mickey: Adam Yates
Jonny Long: Ben Healy
Ronan Mc Laughlin: Marc Hirschi
Joe Lindsey: Tadej Pogačar three-peat
When to watch
The race gets underway at 10:20 am local time in Como (4:20 am EDT/9:20 am BST/7:20 pm AEDT) and is expected to end at around 5 pm local time in Bergamo (11 am EDT/4 pm BST/2 am AEDT). The action should start to pick up in the final hour and a half, so it would make sense be sure you’re tuned in by 3:30 pm local time (9:30 am EDT/2:30 pm BST/12:30 am AEDT).
What you didn’t know you need to know
Il Lombardia is so-named for the region that hosts it, Lombardia (Lombardy in English). You probably knew that, but have you ever wondered why this region is called Lombardia? Wonder no more.
Cast your mind back to those halcyon days of the sixth century … OK things actually weren’t that great in the mid 500s, because the Italian peninsula was ravaged by war between the Ostrogoths, who had taken over after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and troops of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire who fought to reclaim the territory for what was left of “Rome.” In fact, the Byzantine headquarters in Ravenna at around this time was one inspiration for Minas Tirith in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
The Byzantines “won” the Gothic Wars and brought Italy under Eastern Roman control, but years of constant conflict (and an unfortunate, terrible outbreak of plague) left them perilously weakened. Within less than two decades, a huge group of Germanic peoples living north of Italy decided to migrate south, and there was practically nothing left to stop them. Known as the Lombards or the Longobards (possibly in reference to their long beards), these people swept into Italy and defeated what resistance there was to their arrival in much of the peninsula.
Areas around Ravenna, Rome, and the far south of Italy remained in Byzantine hands, but the Po Valley and large parts of central and southern Italy became part of the Kingdom of the Lombards. Like so many other “barbarian” people who came to live in former Roman lands, the Lombards adopted the local customs relatively quickly. They transitioned from speaking their own Germanic language to using the Romance tongue that was evolving from Latin, and they converted from Arian Christianity to Catholicism. For 200 years, they ruled a relatively stable state based at their capital in Pavia in northern Italy, near Milan.
Unfortunately for the Lombards, even as Catholics, they managed to find themselves constantly squabbling with the Bishop of Rome, i.e. the Pope, who controlled a lot of land in Italy. The Frankish king we now know as Charlemagne (Charles the Great) used this conflict as an opportunity to come “help” the leader of the Catholic Church. In 774, he invaded and toppled the Lombard Kingdom. Lombard dukes in central and southern Italy remained independent for a while, but the Lombard power base in northern Italy was now under Frankish control, and the Lombards would soon become but a memory.
Some 1,250 years later, the Lombard language and other customs are long gone, but they live on thanks to their name in the scenic and wealthy region of northern Italy that we still call “Lombardia” in reference to the folks who once ruled here.
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