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Who's going to win the final big classic for the climbers?

Photo: OPQS / Tim De Waele




09.10.2015 @ 20:40 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Most climbers brought their season to an end at last week's Il Lombardia but for the select few that are still fresh and motivated, there's still an important one-day race up for grabs. Formerly an important warm-up race for the Giro di Lombardia, Giro dell'Emilia is now one of two races that brings the Italian season to a close and while it may have lost a bit of prestige due to a recent restructure of the calendar, its finish on the legendary San Luca climb in Bologna is still one that every climber would love to conquer.


While the sprinters prepare their final big outing in Sunday's Paris-Tours, a select group of climbers have kept going since last week's Il Lombardia with a clear focus on the final hilly race on European soil, Giro dell'Emilia. The autumn classic is one of the oldest races on the Italian calendar and its spectacular finish on the steep San Luca climb in Bologna makes it one of the most coveted in the cycling-mad country.


First held in 1909, the race has been held almost annually for more than a century with only 9 editions having been cancelled for different reasons. The race has always had Bologna as its centre and with very few exceptions, it has always been organized as an important autumn classic.


While the race was mostly an Italian affair in its early years, it has developed into an important and coveted event on the international calendar. The first non-Italian winner was none other than Eddy Merckx who triumphed in the 1972 edition and since then, the regular Italian winners have interspersed with high-profile foreign victors like Roger De Vlaeminck, Tony Rominger, Michael Boogerd, Jan Ullrich, Frank Schleck, Robert Gesink, Carlos Betancur and Nairo Quintana. Actually, the race had a long break without Italian winners from Danilo Di Luca’s 2008 win until Diego Ulissi broke the drought in 2013.


The main feature of the race is the legendary San Luca climb that brings the riders up to the Sanctuary of the Madonna Di San Luca. The 2.1km ascent has an average gradient of 9.7% and a maximum of 16% and is a brutal beast suited to the pure climbers. With several passages of the climb and the finish line located at the top, it is no wonder that the race has been dominated by riders that thrive on the steepest ascents.


Unfortunately, the race has lost a lot of prestige recently due to the restructure of the calendar that the UCI made for the 2012 season and the race was probably the biggest loser in that change. Until then, the race was held on the Saturday after the world championships with the Paris-Tours and the other Italian race GP Beghelli taking place one day later and the season-ending monument Giro di Lombardia being scheduled for the following Saturday. While the sprinters brought their season to a close in France, the climbers travelled to Italy and used the Bologna race as an important test and warm-up event for the Lombardy classic.


For the 2012 season, the UCI decided to swap the two weekends around to create a better synergy between the world championships and the Giro di Lombardia which is now known as Il Lombardia. While the big classic has benefited from this change and been able to attract much stronger line-ups for the most recent editions, the Giro dell'Emilia has been the big loser. It is no longer necessary to use the race to keep things going for Lombardy and many riders decide to skip the Bologna race at a point of the season where they are just longing for a holiday. Already in 2012, the race attracted a much less international field and things have only deteriorated since then. In 2013, only 5 ProTeams were at the start , and last year only three teams from the top tier decided to do the race.


For the 2015 edition, things have only become worse. One of the reasons for the woes of the organizers was the introduction of the Tour of Beijing whose status as a WorldTour race made it an important event on the calendar for many teams. That race has ow disappeared but instead the Abu Dhabi Tour has been created and with the rich organizers having teamed up with the powerful Velon group, it has left the organizers of the Giro dell’Emilia licking their wounds.


It’s a big shame that one of the most iconic races on the calendar no longer gains the attention and attracts the stars that it deserves. In fact, it is a very impressive performance by the organizers to still be able to keep the race alive at a time when most of the rich Italian one-day scene has disappeared. This year only 2 WorldTour teams, Ag2r and Lampre-Merida, will be at the start which is a far cry from the glorious days earlier in the history. However, there may be light at the end of the tunnel as the later dates for next year’s World Championships means that the race will again be held before Il Lombardia, meaning that it could gain some of its earlier prestige at least for a single edition.


Last year Davide Rebellin proved that he is still going strong by winning a race that he last won during his heydays in 2006. Angel Madrazo had made a brave long-distance attack and seemed to be on the way to deny the favourites the win. Howeever, Rebellin had enough left in the tank to make one final big acceleration on the San Luca climb and managed to pass the impressive Spaniard who had to settle for second place. Franco Pellizotti was the best of the rest as he managed to distance the Bardiani pair of Manuel Bongiorno and Edoardo Zardini to take third place. Rebellin has shown great condition recently and lines up as one of the favourites for the 2015 edition too and he will again face competition from Madrazo, Pellizotti, Bongiorno and Zardini who will all be back in an attempt to end their season on a high.


The course

The course for Giro dell'Emilia has varied from year to year but has now found a rather fixed format. The first part of the race usually consists of a journey into the hilly southern hinterland of Bologna that is used to tire out the legs ahead of the finale. However, the decisive part of the race is the four laps on a 9.3km finishing circuit and the 5 passages of San Luca that comes at the end of a hard day in the saddle.


The race has had a fixed distance of 200km for the last few years and the route has mostly been unchanged. Only the 2013 edition deviated slightly as the start was moved from Bologna to nearby Modena but that only meant that the early flat part took place on different roads. This year’s course is identical to the one that was used for the 2012 and 2014 editions and the riders fully know what to expect from a race that rarely changes.


The race will be 200km long and will again take off from Bologna as it has usually done. From there, the riders will head along flat roads as they do a small circuit on the northern outskirts of the city. As they return back towards the city, they will continue past the centre and instead hit into the hills that are located on the southern outskirts.


First up is the Croce delle Pradole (11.5km, 5-7%) climb that takes the riders up to 698m of altitude and summits at the 71.5km mark. At the top, there is no descent. Instead, the riders continue along rolling roads before hitting the final short ascent Valico di Santa Lucia (3.4km, 10-12%) that brings them to the highest point of the race 810m above sea level after 89.6km of racing. From there, they head onto a long, technical descent that brings them back onto flat roads as they now turn around to head north back towards Bologna.


Next up is the Badolo climb (6.0km, 5-6%) whose top is located 65.2km from the finish. The climb continues a bit after the official summit and then the riders speed down a technical descent. From there, they continue along slightly ascending roads to Bologna where they turn left to head through the city centre.


With 39.4km to go, they reach the bottom of the San Luca climb (2.1km, 10%, max. 18%) in the southwestern part of the city for the first time. Having climbed the brutal slopes for the first time, they reach the finish line for the to start the first of 4 laps on the 9.3km finishing circuit that consists of a descent that is not nearly as steep as the ascent and a short flat section leading onto the lower slopes of the climb. The race comes to a dramatic and spectacular conclusion when the riders make it to the top of the dreaded climb for the fifth and final time.


The first part of the race is usually the scene for an early break getting some time in the spotlight and mostly serves to accumulate fatigue in the riders' legs but the real race starts when the riders hit the finishing circuit. Every time up the climb, riders drop off and the peloton gradually gets smaller for every passage of the finish line. It’s traditionally an elimination race and with very little flat roads on the circuit there is room for the favourites to create a selection even before they get to the final passage of the climb. The race is usually really aggressive and it requires a fair share of work for the depleted squads to keep things under control. The race is usually decided by the strongest climbers on the final passage but the favourites occasionally make the first attacks on one of the earlier laps. In 2011, it was the early attack by Carlos Betancur that took the race favourites by surprise and the battle on the final climb between Bauke Mollema and Rigoberto Uran ended up being only for 2nd place. Last year it was a very strong Angel Madrazo who nearly denied the favourites the win and his efforts were rewarded with a second place as only Davide Rebellin managed to pass him. Regardless of the way things pan out, one thing is guaranteed: only a splendid climber will be crowned winner of the 98th Giro dell'Emilia.





The weather

As an autumn classic, the Giro dell’Emilia has not always had the best weather and it looks like the 2015 edition is going to be one of those wet editions that require an extra amount of motivation to make it to the finish at the end of what has been a very long season. Saturday is forecasted to be a rainy day in Bologna, with a total amount of rain of 7mm. All day there is a 50% chance of rain so it should be a mix of dry and wet conditions for the riders. There will be a maximum temperature of 17 degrees.


There will be a moderate wind from a northeasterly direction which means that the riders will mainly have a tailwind as they head into the hills after the opening flat circuit. When they turn around after having reached the highest point, they will mainly face a headwind during their journey back to Bologna. On the circuit, they will have a tailwind on the climb and a headwind on the descent.


The favourites

The huge amount of climbing makes the Giro dell’Emilia one of the hardest one-day races on the Italian calendar and it is usually a gradual elimination race. Very often, a rather small field reaches the finish and that tendency will only be made more evident if the forecasted rain will make the race even tougher. Motivation plays a huge role in this race and as many riders are also set to do tomorrow’s GP Beghelli, the non-climbers may prefer to climb off their bike early.


As said, the race usually comes down to the final passages of the San Luca climb where the best climbers battle it out. However, as Carlos Betancur proved in 2011 and Angel Madrazo nearly showed last year, it is possible to make a long-distance move. The chance of a brave attack making it to the finish is made even bigger by the rainy weather and the fact that there is no overwhelming favourite or a really powerful team that can control the race.


That doesn’t change the fact that this race will be won by a solid climber. No one is going to win a race that finishes on the steep San Luca ascent without possessing a solid pair of climbing legs. Usually, the race favours a mix of pure climbers and Ardennes specialists as the rather short ascent means that the punchier, explosive guys can make use of those skills. After all, the race has been won by Davide Rebellin and Diego Ulissi who never shine in the high mountains but it has also been won by pure climbers like Ivan Basso and Nairo Quintana.


As there are only two WorldTour teams at the start, there will be no big teams that are going to dictate things in the way that Astana have done in the recent Italian one-day races. Lampre-Merida even come into the race with a team of youngsters so they only play a role of outsiders. Instead, it is Ag2r standing out as the strongest team and everybody will be looking at them to control things. The question is whether they can bring it back together for a battle on the final passage of the San Luca ascent.


The team is likely to use a two-pronged strategy. Domenico Pozzovivo is a pure climber who would prefer it to come down to the final ascent while Jan Bakelants is a much more versatile rider who relishes wet conditions, is a strong descender and can attack earlier in the race. Ag2r are unlikely to ride very defensively and this means that there is a solid chance that the race will be decided by a late move on one of the later passages of the climb.


This means that we will make the rather unconventional choice to make Jan Bakelants our favourite for the race. The Belgian is usually not suited to this kind of steep finish which is too tough for him. However, the combination of rainy conditions and great form means that the Belgian will have cards to play. By holding off the sprinters in the GranPiemonte, he again showed that he is in excellent form. That was already evident in the Grand Prix Montreal and the GP de Wallonie where he was clearly the strongest rider. Most recently, he attacked strongly on the final climb in Coppa Sabatini but ultimately had to settle for seventh.


Bakelants has the skills to attack from the distance and if the favourites are riding conservatively, they may have to let him go. He is an excellent descender, especially in wet conditions, so he won’t be easy to bring back. He is strong on short climbs so even though San Luca is a bit too steep for him, he won’t be easy to catch. Furthermore, there is no standout team in this race and the captains are likely to be isolated pretty early. If an in-form Bakelants goes late in the race, he is likely to hold on for the win. Furthermore, he is pretty punchy in this kind of finale so it won’t be impossible for him to win a battle on the final ascent.


Ag2r really have cards to play in this race. If it comes down to a battle between the favourites on the final ascent, Domenico Pozzovivo will be the man to beat. For some reason, the Italian has never hit peak condition in the second part of the year and he was far from his best level in the Vuelta. He rode solidly in Milan-Turin where he finished seventh but was again off the pace in Lombardy where he was dropped on Muro di Sormano which should usually suit him very well.


There is no doubt that Pozzovivo is not at his best level but in this race he should still be the best climber and his performances in Turin and Lombardy prove that his condition is not too bad. He may be pretty tiny but he actually has a decent kick too and this kind of relatively short, very steep climb suits him well. He decided to skip the Coppa Sabatini to be ready for this race and he clearly stands out as one of the big favourites.


Davide Rebellin is a double winner of this race and has even been on the podium six times. This clearly shows that the race suits him down to the ground and as the defending champion, he has proved that he is still strong enough to win this kind of race. Actually, he has been riding really well recently, most notably when he rode away with Vincenzo Nibali in the Coppa Agostoni, and he was clearly one of the best in the recent Tre Valli Varesine. The only disappointment was his poor ride in Lombardy but the days when he can compete over the longer distances seem to be over.


In this race, he should be back at his best. Rebellin has never been a rider for the very long climbs but he is incredibly strong on shorter climbs. History shows that San Luca is not too steep for him and he is also pretty good in bad weather. As one of the in-form and most consistent riders, he will be up there. The main challenge for him will be to keep things together as he is not surrounded by a very strong team.


Damiano Cunego is one of the most decorated Italian Ardennes riders. He has won Il Lombardia thrice so it is a bit of a mystery that his best result in this race which evidently suits him, is 5th in 2007.  In fact, he has only been in the top 10 twice, most recently 8 years ago.


However, Cunego is evidently suited to this kind of finale as he is both punchy and a good climber. There is no reason that he can’t do well on the San Luca ascent and he seems to be coming into form just at the right time. He was riding really well in the spring and briefly looked like his former self until he crashed out of the Giro. It has taken a long time for him to get back into his best condition for these races which have always been his goal. He was one of the strongest in Tre Valli Varesine and Milan-Turin where he finished sixth but Lombardia proved to be a bit too much at this stage. However, Giro dell’Emilia is less competitive and he should be one of the best here. Like Rebellin, he faces the big challenge of keeping things together as his team is not very strong.


2015 has been a breakthrough year for Jose Goncalves who has been flying since he lined up for the Volta a Portugal where he won a stage and crossed the line first in another before being relegated. However, it was the performances in the Vuelta that really proved the extent of his talent. He was able to battle with the best on the short, punchy climbs in the finales of the first week and he finished second in the big mountain stage on the penultimate day.


Goncalves is no climber but he is very good on short, steep climbs which means that San Luca should suit him well. The finale could be a bit too steep for him but like Bakelants he has the versatile skills to move a bit earlier. The main issue is whether his form is still at 100% as he has been riding very well since August and the Worlds indicated that he may be on his way down. In the Coppa Sabatini, he indicated that he is still riding well as he launched a strong attack from the bottom of the final climb and ultimately set up his teammate Eduard Prades for the win.


Bardiani go into this race with a two-pronged attack. Manuel Bongiorno and Edoardo Zardini are both great climbers that are suited to this kind of finish. Both were in the top 5 last year and this race is the main goal for the second part of the year. At the moment, it seems that Zardini is in the best condition. He is not in the great form that he had twelve months ago when he won the Tour of Britain queen stage and was selected for the Italian Worlds team but he seems to be getting better at the end of a disappointing year. He was 26th in Milan-Turin but it was his 22nd place in Lombardy that really proves his growing condition. He was 4th in 2014 and 6th in 2013 and there could be another improvement in store in 2015.


For years, Sergey Firsanov has been one of the strongest riders in the Italian classics but this year he has been below his usual level. However, he seems to finally have returned to his best at the tail end of the year. In Tre Valli Varesine, he was clearly one of the strongest and even though he was not good enough to stay with Nibali, he made two strong attacks in the finale to take second place. Since then he has been gearing up for this race which is the final big goal of the season and he definitely has the climbing skills to do well in this race.


Louis Meintjes finally proved the full extent of his talent when he finished 10th in the Vuelta a Espana. Unfortunately, it seems like a long season is catching up with him and he has not been at the same level in his latest races. Especially Milan-Turin was rather disappointing as that race should have suited him really well. However, he is one of the best climbers in this field and as he is slowly getting back into the racing rhythm, he may have one big performance left in his legs in 2015.


Mauro Finetto is not a pure climber but he has finished in the top 10 in this race in the past. At his best, he can mix it up with the lighter guys in this kind of finale and he showed very good condition before he got stung by a bee. Due to his treatment, he had to be put on inactive status for a week and his performance in Lombardy indicated that his short break has cost him a bit when it comes to his form. However, he bounced back with a strong third place in the Coppa Sabatini. The good condition cannot have disappeared completely and with two races now in his legs, he could be back at his best level. He could be one of those riders that could win the race by moving a bit earlier.


Androni go into the race with Franco Pellizotti at the helm. The 2015 season has clearly proved that the veteran is no longer the rider he once was. He was only 19th in Milan-Turin and he was far off the pace in Lombardy. However, he was even worse in those two races last year and he still bounced back with a great third place in a race that suits him really well. Knowing that he can no longer beat the best in a direct battle on the final climb, he could be a rider to launch an attack a bit earlier and with no team to control, this approach could definitely pay off.


Manuel Bongiorno is really suited to this finale and so it is no surprise that he was fifth in last year’s race. However, he doesn’t seem to have the best condition as he was far off the pace in both Milan-Turin and Il Lombardia. Furthermore, he crashed in the Coppa Sabatini. On the other hand, it was the similar scenario in 2014 and back then he still rode strongly in Emilia which has always been his big goal. With Zardini at his side, Bardiani have the chance to use some team tactics and if he is able to repeat last year’s performance, he should be up there.


If this race had come earlier in the season, Rodolfo Torres would have been one of our big favourites. However, the Colombian is no longer in his best condition and it seems that the Vuelta has really taken its toll. He has been off the pace in the Italian one-day races and it requires a bit of turnaround for him suddenly to be a contender. However, he is obviously on of the best climbers in this field and clearly has the skills to win this kind of race.


MTN-Qhubeka have a number of cards to play as they can also rely on Serge Pauwels. The Belgian got a bit of a breakthrough in the Tour de France where he rode extremely aggressively in the mountains and proved that he can mix it up with best in the toughest terrain. He is clearly no longer in the same condition as he rode pretty poorly in the Tour de l’Eurometropole. However, he showed improvement in the Coppa Sabatini and he has the aggressive attitude to try to anticipate the best climbers.


Caja Rural go into the race with young climber Hugh Carthy. The Brit had a slow start to the year but in the USA Pro Challenge, he put his climbing skills on show. Most recently, he showed that the form is still there as he bounced back from a disappointing Tour of Britain with a top 10 finish in the very hard queen stage of the Tour du Gevaudan. This finale should suit him well so he should be up there.


The Ag2r team is amazingly strong and they have a number of potential winners. In addition to Bakelants and Pozzovivo, they can also rely on Pierre-Roger Latour who has had a fantastic first season at the pro level and seems to be destined to be the next big French climber. His performances in the Route du Sud, Vuelta a Burgos and Tour de l’Ain show that he can be up there with the very best on the climbs. Unfortunately, he is no longer in his best condition and he was rather disappointing in both Lombardy and Milan-Turin. On the other hand, he is part of the strongest team and he may be able to exploit the team tactics to come away with the win.


Finally, Gianfranco Zilioli deserves a mention. The Androni rider is one of the most talented Italian climbers but a number of health issues have prevented him from fulfilling his potential. However, he now seems to be getting back to his best as he proved with his fourth place in the Italian Championships which finished on the very hard Superga climb. In the latest Italian races, he has been on the attack almost every time and he doesn’t seem to be in his June condition. However, we would love to see him wait a bit more for the finale and see what he can do against the best climbers.


***** Jan Bakelants

**** Domenico Pozzovivo, Davide Rebellin

*** Damiano Cunego, Jose Goncalves, Edoardo Zardini, Sergey Firsanov, Louis Meintjes

** Mauro Finetto, Franco Pellizotti, Manuel Bongiorno, Rodolfo Torres, Serge Pauwels, Hugh Carthy, Pierre-Roger Latour, Gianfranco Zilioli

* Stephen Cummings, Angel Madrazo, Hubert Dupont, Merhawi Kudus, Jan Polanc, Valerio Conti, Matteo Montaguti, Miguel Angel Rubiano, Huub Duijn, Alessio Taliani, Thomas Sprengers, Floris De Tier, Ricardo Vilela, Maurits Lammertink, Michel Kreder, Kevin Ledanois, Simone Petilli, Marco Tizza, Antonio Santoro



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