This Saturday sees one of the major races in the cycling calendar as the Giro di Lombardia sets off from Como to Bergamo in Northern Italy. It is, of course, one of the five ‘Monuments’, the most important one-day races of the year, along with Milan - San Remo, The Tour of Flanders, Paris -Roubaix and Liege - Baston - Liege. It may not be the oldest of the Monuments, but it’s certainly the most romantic, nicknamed “la classica delle foglie morte” or translated to the slightly more prosaic, “ride of the falling leaves.”
As well as being the last race of the season, it’s one of the hardest with 241km and seven summits to be conquered which will see the peloton climb 4,400m. There’s also the stunning backdrop of Lake Como and the surrounding mountains whose verdant flanks that rise majestically from its tranquil shores, will be turning golden in the autumn sunshine.
The most famous of these climbs is from Bellagio to Madonna del Ghisallo. Although it’s not the hardest climb with an ascent of 500m in just over 8km I can vouch myself, having ridden it this August, that it’s still to be treated with respect. There are sections with inclines of up to 14% that will sting the unawares.
As the first climb of the day it’s unlikely that it will have any influence on the overall outcome, but you can rest assured that the roads here will be lined with passionate, screaming, cycling-mad fans who have chosen this specific spot to watch the race from. Because here is the chapel, The Madonna del Ghisallo, that was declared by Pope Pius XII to be the patroness of cyclists in 1949 during that year’s Giro d’Italia. Legend has it that the Count of Ghisallo was saved from a band of robbers by the appearance of the Virgin Mary at this very spot. As the peloton reaches the summit the church bells will be ringing, greeting the very riders the Madonna seeks to protect.
It has become a place of pilgrimage as cyclists from all over the world go to pay their respects to the great Italian racers of the past: Coppi, Bartali, Motta. Their bikes, jerseys and flags festoon the walls of the tiny church along with photographs, caps, memorabilia and an eternal flame in memory of those cyclists who have lost their lives on Italian roads. There’s also a fabulous modern museum here devoted to the history of the bicycle and bicycle racing. The display of Maglia Rosas, from the faded woolen jerseys of the past to the garish modern lycra of the present is stunning.
This is an Italian race that has been dominated in the past by Italian riders, most notably by the great Fausto Coppi who won it five times. But they have had plenty of success in modern times too: 2001 to 2008 saw an Italian win it every year, while in 2015 Nibali was the overall victor.
It’s also had its fair share of legendary battles as rivalries have played themselves out on the slopes of this beautiful landscape. In 1905 Giovanni Gerbi had the foresight to recce the route beforehand, picking a clever line across a railway crossing while the following riders were left sprawled across its tracks. Meanwhile Fiorenzo Magni was incensed in the 1956 edition when a car overtook him carrying Giulia Occhini, Coppi’s mistress, who sneered at him as she passed. They had never got on and, fuelled by anger and adrenaline, he set off on a seemingly hopeless chase to catch the breakaway of which Coppi was a part. In the final kilometers the two Italians played cat and mouse, neither wanting to give the other an advantage, playing into the hands of the Frenchman Andre Derrigade who attacked, opened a lead and won the race.
This year the extra climbs that have been included into the parcours are expected to thin out the race. The real decider could well be the Bergamo Alta just 3 km from the finish.
There are some strong climbers in the start list who could spring some attacks. Wout Poells of Team Sky is seen as a strong contender and he comes with a powerful team of supporting riders like Michal Kwiatowski and Peter Kennaugh who looked on great form at the Tirreno Adriatico this week. Meanwhile we can expect explosive stuff from Julian Alaphillipe who has been exciting this season as well as Phillipe Gilbert and Joaquim Rodriguez. Of course you should never discount defending champion Vincenzo Nibali. Dan Martin, who won in 2014 is worth a punt too.
Of course, all this will be broadcast by Eurosport with live coverage from 1.30-4.15pm. Be sure to catch it with the ever sparky and amusing Carlton Kirby on the commentary who will, no doubt, be educating us all into some of the more obscure customs and traditions of the local area. Not to be missed!