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
So far we’ve covered Men of the Hour and Up-and-Comers as part of our 2012 Season Preview; now it’s time for a list of the riders and teams who find themselves “on the hot seat” heading into the 2012 season.
Andy Schleck—It’s rarely a good thing when you’re being compared to Joop Zoetemelk. But that’s just the awkward place in which Radio Shack-Nissan’s Andy Schleck finds himself heading into the 2012 season. Schleck has now finished as runner-up at the Tour de France four times*. The good news: Contador’s not racing and Schleck will find himself leading a stronger squad with nine-time Tour de France winning DS Johan Bruyneel driving the team car. The bad news: he’s running out of excuses. And with a 2012 Tour route that emphasizes time trialing over climbing, Schleck could soon find himself one race away from equaling Zoetemelk’s record of six second-place finishes. Then again, even Joop won the race once.
(*Andy’s not counting 2010 as a victory, and neither am I.)
Janez Brajkovic—Two seasons ago Slovenia’s Janez Brajkovic won the Criterium du Dauphiné for Team RadioShack with an impressive mix of climbing and time trialing; at the time he looked to be Johan Bruyneel’s next grand tour champion. But cycling’s a cruel sport and a year later Brajkovic found himself lying on the side of the road during Stage 5 of the 2011 Tour de France; his injuries sent him home less than a week into the Tour. The 28-year-old now rides for Astana, a squad that will welcome another GC contender to ride alongside Roman Kreuziger. Assuming Kreuziger targets the 2012 Giro d’Italia (a race in which he finished sixth last year), Brajkovic might find little stands between him and another chance at Tour leadership.
BMC—Earlier I included BMC on my list of Men of the Hour—and they deserve the distinction. But they also find themselves on the Hot Seat—here’s why:
- Philippe Gilbert, Cadel Evans, and Thor Hushovd will draw intense scrutiny after their 2011 exploits. The only feat more impressive than Gilbert’s 2011 season would be repeating the feat in 2012. As for Evans, he’ll soon find that winning a Tour is one thing, while defending the title is an entirely different proposition (just ask Carlos Sastre and history’s other 1-time winners). And Thor? Well, he did a quite bit of talking in 2011 about how unhappy he was at Garmin-Cervelo. Now he gets to show us what he can do while riding for a team where he feels his “leadership” is safe and secure.
- America’s great young hopes—Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen—need to show some progression in 2012. Phinney needs to turn his lessons from 2011 into results in 2012 while Van Garderen needs to win a week-long stage race—Paris-Nice would be a fantastic start.
- Aging and former stars such as George Hincapie and Alessandro Ballan will fight to stay relevant just within their own squad. I’m still holding out hope that Thor’s arrival will give Hincapie the leash he needs to win Roubaix. As for Ballan, his continued presence on the roster surprises me considering his lack of results and the continued investigation of his role in the Mantova doping case.
- Last, but not least: chemistry. It takes a lot to manage the egos and aspirations of a professional cycling team, let alone a squad with so many high-profile stars. Evans, Gilbert, and Hushovd have all had moments where they appeared unable to play well with others—or at least unable to do so while keeping their mouths shut about it. Jim Ochowicz and the rest of BMC’s management will need to anticipate flare-ups before they happen and work quickly to extinguish problems before they spread.
Mark Cavendish—British rider, British team, World Champion, London Olympics—assuming he makes it through the Tour unscathed, Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish will likely face more Olympic pressure than any rider has ever known. With two stage wins in Qatar, at least he’s off to a good start.
Riders with Names Ending in “-ov”—In particular, I’m thinking of Alexandre Vinokourov, Alexandr Kolobnev, and Denis Menchov. As for Vino, he’s trying to end his career with some measure of respect at Astana, while putting behind him the “allegations” that he bought the 2010 Liege-Bastogne-Liege from Alexandr Kolobnev (who’s been provisionally suspended for testing positive for masking agents at the 2011 Tour de France). Denis Menchov made a major career mistake when he transferred from Rabobank to Geox-TMC after a 2010 season that saw him finish third in the Tour de France. Unfortuantely, the supposed skeletons in the closets of Geox’s management meant there would be no Tour de France for the Spanish squad, so Menchov found himself sitting at home in July; he finished 8th in the Giro and 5tht in the Vuelta, but failed to make a major impact in either race. This year he finds himself riding for Katusha and should get another crack at leading a team the Tour. Believe it or not, the parcours suits him quite well, and another podium shot is certainly well within his reach.
Italy—Italians won 102 races in 2011, but few of any import. Worse still, the country’s grand tour riders came up empty after winning the Giro and the Vuelta in 2010. So it should come as no surprise that changes are in store for 2012. First, Liquigas rider Ivan Basso seems to have given-up on his Tour de France dreams; the 34-year-old has instead set his sights on winning his third Giro d’Italia. As for Vincenzo Nibali, the Tour de France was supposed to be his big goal for 2012; he finished 7tht in 2009 and has learned how to win and lose a grand tour in the two seasons since his breakthrough. That said, Nibali hasn’t ruled-out the Giro d’Italia either, an interesting proposition considering his toughest rival might also be his teammate.
In the classics, another poor season for Filippo Pozzato lost him his World Tour ride; he now leads Farnese-Vini, a team whose prospects—and race invitations—seemed to be improving until the charismatic,but frustrating, Italian “star” broke his collarbone. More weeks of training down the drain. Damiano Cunego still seems years away from his former race-winning self and Alessandro Ballan? Well, your guess is as good as mine.
But of all the Italians feeling pressure to perform in 2012, national team coach Paolo Bettini is likely to be feeling it the most. He’ll have two chances to redeem himself in 2012: the Olympics and Worlds. If he can’t do it, look for a change at the helm of the federation’s national squad.
Thomas Voeckler—Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler will be hard-pressed to re-create his Tour de France heroics from 2011. Let’s hope he doesn’t really take his Tour prospects seriously enough to sacrifice his chances in other races, as he’s one of the sport’s most exciting stars.
Monument Race Organizations—Changing the route or the date of a Monument is never a popular decision, but in 2012 we’ll see significant alterations to two of the sport’s oldest and most prestigious races. First off, the organizers of April’s Tour of Flanders have decided that the traditional Muur/Bosberg finale is too…predictable? Easy? Boring? To be honest, I’m not really sure what they were thinking, but if this year’s “new and improved” set of finishing circuits doesn’t lead to a spectacular win for either Philippe Gilbert or Tom Boonen, there will be hell to pay in Oudenaarde.
As for Italy’s “Race of the Falling Leaves”, il Lombardia (a name I’m still getting used to saying), a move to September means the leaves won’t be falling anymore. The UCI is hoping that an earlier date will see more in-form riders contest the late-season event, even if the scenery proves to be a less spectacular. The switch has a better chance of producing a more exciting race than the changes to Flanders do, but the sport’s purists are still shaking their heads.
Campagnolo—With more and more teams choosing Shimano or SRAM for their components, Campagnolo has to be feeling some pressure to remain relevant. Of the 18 teams in this year’s World Tour, only three (Lotto-Belisol, Lampre-ISD, and Movistar) will be riding the Italian groupsets in 2012 (Team Europcar, one of the sport’s better Professional Continental squads, will be racing Campy as well). The company’s new EPS electronic group was beginning to generate a bit of buzz—and then SRAM introduced its new Red grouppo and stole most of the spotlight. Campy’s still relying on decades of cachet to drive sales, but one has to wonder if they can keep up.
Team NetApp—They won one race last year—the time trial at the 2.2 Tour Gallipoli. They barely made a ripple at last year’s Amgen Tour of California—one of the biggest events on their calendar. Now they’re riding the Giro d’Italia? If the Giro had a Super PAC, Net App would have just made a significant donation.
Bjarne Riis—Even with a suspension and the loss of two grand tour titles, Alberto Contador will be just fine. As for Bjarne Riis and Team Saxo Bank-Sunguard? Well, that’s another issue entirely. It seems that Riis is almost always struggling to find new sponsors to help his team survive from one season to the next; now he faces six months without his Spanish star and the possible loss of his team’s World Team license. There were rumors circulating that Stefano Garzelli might sign with Saxo Bank after his Acqua & Sapone squad was not invited to the Giro d’Italia. Given Garzelli’s track record at the Italian grand tour, that might not be a bad option for the Danish general manager.
Who’s on your Hot Seat? Share your comments below.
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Image: John Pierce, Photosport International