World Cup: Fat Lady To Sing in Lombardy
– By Gordon Cameron –
The professional road racing season in Europe effectively comes to a close on Saturday with one of the most beautiful races on the calendar. In it’s 98th year, the Giro di Lombardia (Tour of Lombardy) is known as the ‘Race of the Falling Leaves’, and is the perfect counterpoint to Paris-Nice, known as the ‘Race to the Sun’, which falls in March.
Lombardy sometimes sees the riders arrive at the finish as dusk encroaches, giving the race a very special, melancholic quality – the champion for whom the word melancholic was invented, Fausto Coppi, took the race 5 times. In stunning countryside, they were some of his finest exploits.
Last year, Danilo Di Luca held off Giuliano Figueras to win in the misty, Lombardy twilight – a situation seen by some as symbolic of the close of a long fight against the doping generation, although the chaos of this year’s Giro indicates otherwise.
This year’s event is to be run over 251 km from Cantu to Bergamo, and is the final race in the ‘Trittico Rosa’ series after Milan-Turin and Giro Del Piedmonte. The course is hilly and selective, and sees the riders climb the Madonna del Ghisallo, (home to a famous shrine hung with jerseys from every champion of note), the Colle del Gallo, Selvino, Berbenno and the Colle Aperto which could be the springboard to a final victory coming just 4 km from home.
It will also see the final battle for the 2002 World Cup between current leader Paolo Bettini and Johan Museew. As the route favours those who can climb, rather than the powerhouse hardmen such as Museew, it’s a fair bet the Italian will extend his 9 point margin by the end of Saturday. Having won Liege-Bastogne-Liege twice, a race not dissimilar in terms of course profile, Bettini stands every chance of winning Lombardy on Saturday.
Aside from Bettini, a number of strong favourites stand out for the 2002 race. First among those is Michele Bartoli, who has surprisingly failed to place higher than 3rd in a race which suits his attacking style and strength on these types of climbs. With 3 wins in 3 weeks, Bartoli is looking good and knows one more huge effort will enable him to enjoy a very happy winter. His team mate Francesco Casagrande is also strong on this type of route, and has posted decent results after finishing in the Vuelta’s top 10 last month. He’ll also want to finish his time at Fassa Bortolo with a bang, given his impending switch to Lampre.
Previous winners Danilo Di Luca and Mirko Celestino are bound to be in the mix and can’t be ignored. However, it could mean that with Gilberto Simoni and Igor Astarloa also riding for Saeco, there may just be too many options for the Italian squad to have a cohesive game plan. Theoretically, Astarloa can still win the World Cup, but needs a reasonably freakish outcome to do so, and his team mates might not be inclined to devote their energies to him.
Rabobank’s Michael Boogerd is a rider who loves this sort of course, and has made the Lombardi podium twice. He has the talent, and like Bartoli, it is a surprise that he has never won here.
Whatever happens, the man on the top step of the podium will have deservedly won one of cycling’s premier races, and ensured his place alongside the finest of company in the sport’s history.