Lombardy, the industrial engine of Italy and the beating heart of the country’s rich cycling culture. Home to hundreds of cycling clubs and tens of thousands of competitive cyclists, racing from one end of the year to the other, through the little towns and villages that have given the Italians many of their greatest heroes: from Alfredo Binda and Felice Gimondi to Roberto Visentini, Gianni Bugno, and Ivan Basso.
There’s no more fitting place to end the season. The real season, at least. The one we all care about, with its deep roots in Europe’s hardworking hinterlands, where more than a century ago the sport’s most famous races began. The first sign of spring comes in Tuscany with the Strade Bianche and the Tirreno-Adriatico, and then up north, close to the French border, with Milano-Sanremo, where the classics season comes into full bloom. What follows is a fruitful summer of grand tour racing at the Giro, the Tour, and the Vuelta, and so it’s only right that the attention loops back to Italy for the autumnal curtain closer at Il Lombardia, la classica delle foglie morte, the race of the falling leaves.
Pre-dating the Giro d’Italia by four years, Lombardia has always been a firm favourite in the hearts and minds of cycling fans, but more than any other monument, the race has also been something of a chameleon. The first edition was held in 1905, starting and finishing in Milan – it was inventively called the Milano-Milano – and since then it has hopped around the region with abandon, even crossing the border into Switzerland. In the golden age of Italian cycling, when the roads were ruled by Binda, Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi, it was a relatively flat race, but a switch to Como for the finish in 1961 gave the race the character we know today, defined by tough, short climbs around one of Europe’s most idyllic lakes, beloved by poets like Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. It was there that Giuseppe Verdi composed most of his famous pera, La Traviata, and it also provided the perfect setting for James Bond’s showdown with the villainous Mr. White in Casino Royale … but that’s not really relevant.
This year, the 247km course gains almost 4000m climbing and begins in the beautiful centre of Bergamo. It’s always one of the season’s most difficult races to call, and there will be a big bunch of hopefuls on the start-line come October 7th, but Warren Barguil and Fabio Aru are among the most likely contenders from the peloton’s young stars, while Sky’s Mikel Landa and Michal Kwiatkowski have to be considered as at least an outside contenders. The reigning champ, everyone’s favourite smiling Colombian Esteban Chaves, will sadly miss out on the chance to defend his title following a crash at the Giro dell’Emilia, but several others like 2014’s winner Dan Martin, Rigoberto Uran, Thibaut Pinot, and Romain Bardet will fancy their chances. Most of the local fans will be hoping that Vincenzo Nibali, after coming third at the Giro and second at the Vuelta, can replicate his 2015 form in this race when a memorable attack left his rivals for dead and delivered a memorable monument victory for the Sicilian after what had been a difficult season.
The gruelling finale combines the iconic climb to Madonna del Ghisallo with the tortuous Muro di Surmano, one of the most feared climbs in Europe, followed by the punchy ascent to Civiglio that averages out at 10 percent, and the final stretch uphill to San Fermo della Battaglia before the quick descent to the line in Como.
Madonna del Ghisallo probably needs no introduction. Rising out of Bellagio and winding up from the lake through a succession of hairpin bends, the crest of the climb is instantly recognisable for its chapel, which has become a temple to the sport and a shrine to its greatest protagonists. Legend has it that in the 12th century, the Count of Ghisallo was saved from bandits by a vision of the Madonna. Adopted by travellers and then by cyclists in the 20th century, the virgin was eventually anointed as the sport’s patron saint in the 1940s, when the local Jesuit priest, Father Ermelindo Vigano, convinced Pope Pius XII to make a formal decree. The pontiff – a fan – even dispatched an eternal flame for the altar that was carried from Rome to Como by a relay of cyclists, including Coppi and Bartali.
From the sacred to the sacrilegious, the route continues to the Muro di Sormano, one of cycling’s most notorious climbs. Almost two kilometres at an average of 16 percent, kicking up over 25 percent in places, it was abandoned as quickly as it was adopted in the 1960s after the peloton protested. The narrow, murderous stretch lay dormant until 2012 when race organisers RCS dusted it off.
Those famous climbs are rarely decisive – Ghisallo is too obvious and Sormano too brutal – but they serve to prune the peloton, leaving only the strongest, setting the stage for drama over Civiglio and San Fermo della Battaglia as the protagonists are forced to show their cards.
Want to experience these unforgettable roads for yourself? Check out our awesome 2018 Lakes & Climbs trip!