LECCO, Italy (RKP) — Coursing through a pouring rain, backlit by motorcycle headlights, a broadly grinning Joaquim Rodriguez on Saturday became the first Spaniard to win the Giro di Lombardia.
The Katusha rider escaped a strong group of contenders on the final climb to Villa Vergano and held them off on the rain-lashed run into the finish to claim Il Lombardia by just nine seconds over countryman Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Colombian Rigoberto Uran (Sky Procycling).
The victory also set the 33-year-old atop the UCI WorldTour rankings with 692 points, bumping Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins down to second place with 601.
“It’s the biggest win of my life,” said Rodriguez, who this year won the Flèche Wallonne before finishing second in the Giro d’Italia and third in the Vuelta a España.
“Since this morning I just felt that things would go right. I saw people getting tired during the race and I was feeling good. But I didn’t think I’d be going to the finish on my own. I thought I’d have to contend the sprint with (Alberto) Contador and (Vincenzo) Nibali.”
The 251km “Race of the Falling Leaves” celebrated the year of Felice Gimondi’s 70th birthday with a sendoff from the man himself in Bergamo and the reintroduction of the grueling ascent of the Muro di Sormano a half-century after it proved so challenging that many a rider found himself off the bike and forced to walk.
The brutal incline, which averages 15 percent but serves up ramps as steep as 29 percent, arose after 165km of racing, including the 9.6km grind up Valico di Valcava, with a grade averaging 9 percent. Two more climbs followed the Sormano — the first to the tiny chapel of Madonna del Ghisallo and the second to Villa Vergano, where Oliver Zaugg attacked to win the 2011 edition of Il Lombardia.
It was a damp, misty day that dawned for the final major classic of the 2012 season, and with 88km to race the four survivors of a larger break — Steve Morabito (BMC Racing). Cristian Salerno (Liquigas-Cannondale), Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Alberto Losada (Katusha) — held just over a minute on the peloton, which included world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), sporting his brand-new rainbow jersey, and Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank), who had been on a tear since his return from suspension, winning the Vuelta a España and Milano-Torino.
As the bunch reached the foot of the Sormano, Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel-Euskadi) tried his luck, chasing the leaders in slow motion up the short, insanely steep lane, which — clogged as it was with screaming fans — was barely wide enough to accommodate the team cars.
Txurruka didn’t make much headway, though, and as Bardet and Losada pulled away from Morabito and Salerno, the Basque rider drifted back to the peloton.
A persistent chase gradually reeled in Salerno, then Morabito, leaving only Bardet and Losada out front, clinging to a 20-second advantage on the vicious 2km grind through a thick mist.
Losada, too, would drop off, leaving Bardet the last man standing; he topped the Sormano alone as Rodriguez briefly tested his legs behind. Purito took a slight gap over Nibali (Liquigas) and Contador going over the top, with Gilbert, Ivan Basso (Liquigas) and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) further back yet as the Sormano took its toll on the field.
Bardet rode cautiously down the technical descent toward Nesso, cornering gingerly on the narrow, damp road, at one point unclipping his right shoe and extending the leg for balance.
Behind, others were either less cautious or less fortunate. Gilbert crashed and ended the race in a BMC team car, his bid for a third victory in Il Lombardia at an end. Others hitting the rain-slick road included teammate Alessandro Ballan and Luca Paolini (Katusha). Paolini’s teammate Daniel Moreno likewise slid out in a slick left-hand hairpin, but remounted and continued. Even a photo moto went down in the fog.
There was a regrouping with 67km to race, on the flat preceding Madonna del Ghisallo, and some discussion among Contador, Basso and Nibali as Bardet stretched his lead out to more than a minute.
Hesjedal led a pursuit that began eating into Bardet’s advantage, trimming it to 45 seconds with 55km to go. Then Kevin de Weert (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) attacked up the right side of the road, taking a slight and brief gap over an apparently unconcerned peloton. Bardet soldiered on alone, just 27 seconds ahead but losing time to the chase.
With 52km to go the peloton had Bardet in its sights. A quick pull of the trigger and that was that — it was gruppo compatto with 51.5km to race.
The detente didn’t last long. Gritting his teeth, De Weert had another go, quickly taking a 40-second gap with 47km remaining.
At the summit of the Ghisallo De Weert had extended his lead to 45 seconds, but on the descent the pursuit began nibbling away at his advantage, closing to within a half minute with 37km to race, as Losado did yeoman’s work at the front for team leader Rodriguez.
A few kilometers later Nibali, Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) and Paolo Tiralongo (Astana) all went down in a slick corner. And then De Weert slid out in a right-hander, and that put paid to his day in the sun with 30km remaining.
Losado continued to drive the bunch as Basso looked around for Nibali, who was off the back after his spill.
And then Rui da Costa (Movistar) attacked up the left side of the road alongside Lake Como. Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel) followed, and as Basso dropped back for a word with Nibali there were two off the front with 23km to go.
Basso shepherded Nibali back to the other contenders as Losado, incredibly, continued dragging a greatly reduced peloton along. Finally Lars Petter Nordhaug (Sky Procycling) took over the chase with a pair of Lampres in his slipstream.
Nieve dropped back but da Costa kept plugging away, holding to a lead of some 20-odd seconds as he raced toward the final climb of the day, to Villa Vergano. There was no question of his remaining out front, however — behind, Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel), Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and Hesjedal were all edging forward, awaiting opportunity.
With 13.5km remaining Da Costa sat up and called it a day as the peloton — down to perhaps 30 riders — rolled toward what would be a dark, sodden finale.
Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil-DCM) attacked early on the Villa Vergano climb, which averaged 6 percent and maxed out at 12. Gorka Verdugo (Euskaltel) and Alexandr Kolobnev (Katusha) followed as Hesjedal led the chase.
The rain worsened as the kilometers ticked off toward single digits, and umbrellas popped up along the finish line.
And then Purito leapt away on the final climb, as Zaugg had last year, and with 8km remaining the Spaniard was on his own, driving toward the line. Chasing some 10 seconds down, raising roostertails in the rain, were Hesjedal, Uran and Sergio Henao (Sky), Nairo Alexander Quintana (Movistar), Mauro Santambrogio (BMC), Contador and defending champion Zaugg.
The conditions were atrocious on the final descent, yet, incredibly, neither hare nor hounds went down. And as the road flattened out with 3km to go Rodriguez was still powering along alone out front.
The chase was growing bigger, though, as Mollema, Frekrik Kessiakoff (Astana) and Franco Pellizotti (Androni Giocattoli) latched on. And that may have played out to Rodriguez’s advantage, with no one eager to tow a rival toward victory.
Or perhaps it was simply a matter of resignation to the inevitable.
“We expected Rodriguez to attack on the final climb, or else Contador,” said Uran, who earlier in the week won the Giro del Piemonte. “When he did, we just couldn’t follow.”
Images: Fotoreporter Sirotti, RCS Sport