The Italian one-day scene is no longer what it once was but one part of the calendar still flourishes. The famous series of autumn classics in Italy is still very rich and until October 1 when it all culminates at Il Lombardia, no less than 11 relatively big races will be held in the country. After last week’s hectic start and the two-day Giro della Toscana, the puncheurs will be ready to battle it out in one of the most iconic races on the calendar, the Coppa Sabatini.
Being one of cycling’s traditional key countries, Italy once had a very rich calendar of one-day races. Both the spring and the autumn were loaded with great classics in some of the best cycling terrain in the world. Classics riders with a good punch on the climbs and a fast finish excelled on the lumpy courses of the many race in one of cycling’s main countries.
Unfortunately, the tough economic times have taken its toll on the calendar and now there are barely any races left in the first part of the year. The only one-day races in February are GP Costa degli Etruschi and Trofeo Laigueglia, only Strade Bianche and GP Industria have survived on the March calendar and in April, there is just the Giro dell’Appennino left. Trofeo Matteotti is held in July and there is no longer a single race in August which was once one of the busiest months on the calendar.
However, the autumn classics have mostly managed to survive. In fact, no country can boast such a rich amount of big one-day races at any time of the year as Italy can in the months of September and October. No less than 1p 1.1, 1.HC and WorldTour races make up an intriguing and exciting part of the cycling season that plays a special role and is dear to many riders’ heart. The highlight if of course the monument Il Lombardia which has traditional been the final event in the series. In recent years, a reshuffling of the calendar has moved it a bit forward in the calendar and the weekend with the Giro dell’Emilia and GP Beghelli has brought the curtain down on the Italian season. This year the new date for the Worlds means that those races will be held earlier than usual, and Il Lombardia will again be the final race in the series. Hence, all 11 races will take place between September 14 and October 1, turning it into the busiest period in any cycling country during the year.
The many one-day races play a special role for many Italian riders. The first races have traditionally been the final key events for the national coach to finalize his selection for the World Championships, and very often the national team has lined up in some of the races that have served as some kind of a dress rehearsal. The later events have formed their own block with a busy week of hilly races that work serve as perfect preparation for Il Lombardia. That block includes Milan-Turin and Gran Piemonte which are organized by RCS Sports and those races have a much more international flavor than the early races which are mainly dominated by Italians.
Last week the series kicked off with Coppa Bernocchi, Coppa Agostoni and Memorial Marco Pantani and this week things get even more intense as there will be racing on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. After the two-day Giro della Toscana, there are three famous one-day races on the menu.In recent years, Coppa Sabatini, Giro dell’Emilia and GP Beghelli have been held over four days at the very end of the season in the week after Il Lombardia. This year the new dates for the Worlds mean that they will move back to the spot that they once had and now they will be held one week before the Italian monument.
The move has had a great impact on the races. The move to the end of the season had a negative impact on the start lists as the races have turned into largely Italian affairs with very little international appeal. This year a lot of big teams have shown interest in the one-day races which now serve as the perfect preparation for Il Lombardia. This has made the fields much stronger and this year they will have the prestige that they rightly deserve.
The first race is the Coppa Sabatini which is now held in conjunction with the Giro della Toscana which is no longer a one-day race. Instead, it was held as a two-day stage race over the last two days and held by the same organizers as those in charge of the Coppa Sabatini. Hence, there is a great overlap between the start lists as the organizers have been able to present three days of consecutive racing to prepare for Il Lombardia.
Coppa Sabatini was first held in 1952 when the city of Peccioli wanted to host a race in memory of Giuseppe Sabatini who had a beautiful career between 1933 and 1947 but died prematurely at 36 years of age. Since then it has only been cancelled once, in 1977, and it has firmly established itself as one of the most beautiful and prestigious Italian autumn classics. In the early years, it didn’t have the same appeal but in the 60s and 70s, the big riders turned their attention to the race. Riders like Franco Birossi, Gösta Pettersson, Giovanni Battaglin, Francesco Moser, Giuseppe Saronni, Moreno Argentin, Gianni Bugno, Maurizio Fondriest, Claudio Chiapucci, Bjarne Riis, Andrea Tafi, Andrei Tchmil, Paolo Bettini, Jan Ullrich, Giovanni Visconti, Philippe Gilbert, Diego Ulissi and Sonny Colbrelli have all won the race and after a few years with less attention, it should be back in the spotlight in 2016.
What makes Coppa Sabatini exciting is its iconic uphill sprint. That has turned it into a race for puncheurs which is reflected in the recent winners. Visconti, Gilbert, Enrico Battaglin, Fabio Duarte, Ulissi and Colbrelli all specialize in uphill sprints and they have made use of their explosiveness to add the prestigious classic to their palmares.
Last year it came down to the expected sprint and it was Eduard Prades who took the biggest win of his career ahead of Maurits Lammertink and Mauro Finetto who all specialize in finales like this.
The 64th Coppa Sabatini will be held on a traditional course over 195.9km around the city of Peccioli. Like every year, it is a circuit race that is made up of three different circuits. First the riders will do one lap of a big 57.6km loop that includes the climbs of Terriciola and Chianni in the early part and the climb of Lajatico just 10km from the end. The circuit finishes with the small climb to the line which will be tackled numerous times.
After the first passage of the line, the riders will do three laps of a shorter 21.7km circuit which includes a big part of the first circuit. The first half is flat and then the riders will again tackle the Terriciola climb five kilometres from the finish before they again take on the climb that leads to the line.
The final part of the race is made up of 6 laps of a 12.2km circuit. It’s the flattest of the circuits as the early descent leads to completely flat roads. The only challenge is the final 1km climb which averages 7%. It’s a tricky ascent as it includes no less than four hairpin bends on the lower slopes and then there are another two turns to negotiate before the riders get to the short finishing straight of around 200m.
History shows that Coppa Sabatini is always decided in an uphill sprint suited to puncheurs. In fact, the explosive riders haven’t been denied for years and it is hard to imagine that it will be any different in 2016. First of all, the weather will be nice and the conditions won’t be there to try to split the field. Secondly, teams like Bardiani, Movistar, Androni, Dimension Data and Caja Rural all want the race to be decided in a sprint and they should be strong enough to keep things under control.
There are teams with a clear interest in an aggressive race. Astana and Ag2r have some good climbers who will try to make use of the earlier passages of the final climb to shake things up. However, there are so many teams that want to sprint that we find it hard to imagine that it won’t be another day for the puncheurs.
That makes it a perfect race for Sonny Colbrelli. The Bardiani leader is already a former winner of the ace and now he is even much stronger than he was when he won the race two years ago. All year he has proved that hi climbing has reached a new level and he confirmed it in the Giro della Toscana where he managed to stay with the likes of Fabio Aru and Giovanni Visconti on the climbs. His great performance in Toscana comes on the back of his excellent showing in the French races where he won some tough stages in the Tour du Limousin and the Tour du Poitou-Charentes.
Colbrelli specializes in uphill sprints and even though this climb is probably a bit steeper than what he prefers, he has proved that he can win here. With his improved climbing, he will have an even better chance and even though the field will be stronger than it was when he last won, we doubt that anyone will be able to beat him here. Colbrelli is out favourite to win the race.
Giovanni Visconti returned to his winning ways in Toscana where he proved that his form is very good. He stayed with Aru on the climbs and his well-timed attack in the finale allowed him to win the first stage. He has already won this race in the early part of his career and it’s definitely true that it’s a finish that suits him well. He is very strong in an uphill sprint and even though he is usually not as fast as Colbrelli, this climb is so steep that he can beat the Bardiani sprinter.
Francesco Gavazzi goes into the race with lots of confidence after his win in Memorial Marco Pantani. In general, he has shown great form recently so it was of a surprise that he was of the pace in the Giro della Toscana. No official explanation has been given but he abandoned today’s stage, probably to be fresh for Coppa Sabatini. He has won uphill sprints at the WorldTour level in the Tour of Beijing and he was second behind Colbrelli in the uphill sprint at Tour du Limousin just a few weeks ago. Usually, Colbrelli is faster but on a steep climb like this, he has a chance.
Caja Rural are here without defending champion Eduard Prades and instead they will look to Carlos Barbero. The Spaniard specializes in uphill sprints as he proved when he won a tough stage at last year’s Vuelta a Burgos. He has been in great form recently, most notably at the Tour of Britain, but he has not been at the same level since he arrived in Italy. It remains to be seen whether he still has the condition to be competitive here but if he is at 100%, he should find the finale to his liking.
Ag2r will be led by an in-form Jan Bakelants. The Belgian came out of the Vuelta in great condition and was one of the strongest in the GP de Wallonie until he faded in the finale. At the European Championships, he rode strongly in service of Philippe Gilbert and he will be keen to make use of his good form in this race. He is pretty fast in an uphill sprint as he proved with his third place in the Rodez stage at the 2015 Tour de France. There are faster riders than him but the final climb is hard enough for him to win.
Wilier-Southeast will be supporting Filippo Pozzato. The Italian has finally found some form. He rode aggressively in the northern classics in September, was fifth in Coppa Bernocchi and in the top 10 in both stages in Toscana. The final climb may be a bit too hard for him but with his current form, he should be competitive as he likes uphill sprints.
Jonathan Hivert was once one of the best puncheurs and he should find this finale to his liking. After an injury-marred start to the season, he has shown great form recently and he was in the 7-rider group that animated the finale in the tough first stage of the Giro della Toscana. It remains to be seen whether his level is now good enough to match the best but on paper it’s a finale that suits him down to the ground.
Andrea Pasqualon has been on the podium in this race in the past and as he has shown good form recently, he should definitely be competitive even though the final climb is a bit on the limit for him. Kristian Sbaragli is another sprinter capable of doing well here but the final climb is probably too hard for him to go for the win. We are also curious to see how Romain Maikin can do here. He won a stage at the Tour du Limousin and is really strong in uphill sprints. The question is whether the climb is also too hard for him.
Davide Rebellin has always been good in this race but he hasn’t been at his best recently. Furthermore, he is probably not fast enough to win the race even though he is very likely to finish in the top 10.
Matteo Busato has shown good form recently and is a bit of a revelation this year. He is a good climber with a solid sprint and should be competitive here. The same goes for Thomas Sprengers who also specializes in uphill sprints and has been riding solidly in recent weeks. However, the final climb may be a bit too hard for him.
Finally, we will point to Fabio Aru. The Italian is obviously one of the best climbers here and his strong and aggressive showings in Coppa Agostoni and Giro della Toscana show that the form is good. He is not explosive enough to win a sprint but if he goes on the attack or hits out early on the final climb, he won’t be easy to bring back.
***** Sonny Colbrelli
**** Giovanni Visconti, Francesco Gavazzi
*** Carlos Barbero, Jan Bakelants, Filippo Pozzato, Jonathan Hivert
** Andrea Pasqualon, Kristian Sbaragli, Davide Rebellin, Matteo Busato, Thomas Sprengers, Roman Maikin, Fabio Aru
* Romain Bardet, Damiano Cunego, Paul Voss, Andrea Fedi, Diego Rosa, Miguel Angel Lopez, Franco Pellizotti, Rodolfo Torres, Floris De Tier, Grega Bole, Marco Zamparella, Artem Nych, Evgeny Shalunov
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