With the Worlds being held on a flat course in Qatar, many climbers have brought their season to an end but some are still motivated to go for the final big goal of the year, next week’s Il Lombardia. Tomorrow they will get the chance to test their legs in the Giro dell'Emilia which has regained its prestige due to the restructure of the calendar. After a few years with relatively poor line-ups, a formidable list of contenders will be ready to battel it out on the legendary San Luca climb in Bologna which is still one that every climber would love to conquer.
While the sprinters prepare their final big outing at the World Championships in Qatar, the climbers all have their eyes on Il Lombardia which is the final hilly race on European soil and final monument of the year. Many used the Canadian classic as their first test of form but during the next week, the preparations get more intense in a series of Italian one-day races that serve as a final warm-up for the biggest autumn classic. Alongside Milan-Turin, Giro dell'Emilia has traditionally been the best place to get ready for the race of the falling leaves. 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 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, 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, in 2014 only three teams from the top tier decided to do the race and last year it reached an all-time low. The addition of the Abu Dhabi Tour left the organizers of the Giro dell’Emilia licking their wounds and with only 2 WorldTour teams, Ag2r and Lampre-Merida, at the start, it was a far cry from the glorious days earlier in the history.
This year the race has regained all its prestige. The later dates for the World Championships have created an open slot in the calendar in the weekend before Il Lombardia and the organizers have been quick to grab the chance. Together with the Coppa Sabatini which is always held two days earlier, and GP Beghelli which is held one day later, the race has been moved to the final preparation week for the Italian monument. That has had a huge effect on all races as they now come at a perfect time to get ready for the race in Lombardy. As the Giro della Toscana has also been added and is held over two days in the same week, the riders can now choose between five days of quality racing and next week Tre Valli Varesine, Milan-Turin and GranPiemonte offer a final chance to fine-tune the condition. This year the rich Italian series of autumn classics has reached a new high and as it is the only place to be if you want to do hilly races at this time of the year, all races have received a huge boost.
Together with Milan-Turin, Giro dell’Emilia is the only race suited to climbers and this has had a big effect on the line-up. While there were only two WorldTour teams in attendance 12 months ago, this year’s field is stellar. Astana, BMC, Ag2r, Trek, Movistar, Dimension Data, Cannondale, FDJ, Lampre-Merida and Orica-BikeExchange will be at the start and most of the European pro continental teams will be in attendance too. Fabio Aru, Bauke Mollema, Esteban Chaves, the Yates brothers, Samuel Sanchez, Philippe Gilbert, Rigoberto Uran, Daniel Moreno, Diego Ulissi, Tomain Bardet and Diego Ulissi are just some of the stars that have opted to do the race and this turns it into the strongest field that the race has had for years.
Last year the race was held in terrible conditions and for the first time in a few years it was won by a rider who is not a pure climber. The relatively poor field meant that there was no team to take control when Jan Bakelants went on the attack and together with Andrea Fedi and Angel Madrazo, he managed to stay away. On the final climb, he dropped his companions to take the win ahead of the Italian and the Spaniard while Damiano Cunego was 12 seconds too late in fourth place. This year Bakelants will be back to defend his title and both Fedi and Madrazo will also be back to try to improve on last year’s result.
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 around 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 the course has undergone a few modifications as the early part of the stage has been changed, with new climbs featuring in the run through the hilly terrain south of Bologna. However, the nature of the race will be the same.
At 213km, the race will be a bit longer than usual and will again take off from Bologna as it has usually done. From there, the riders will head south along flat roads until they to the first challenge of the day. Mongardino averages 7% over 1.9km and has a maximum gradient of 10% and comes at the 41.3km mark.
After the descent, the riders will continue south along slightly ascending roads until they get to the bottom of the longest climb of the race, Passo Zanchetto (19.7km, 5%, max. 8%) whose top comes at the 91.5km mark. It’s the southernmost point of the course and signals the start of a long descent before flat roads leads back towards Bologna.
Next up is the Badolo climb (6.0km, 5-6%) which always comes at this point in the race. The top is located 63.5km from the finish and from there, the course is almost identical to the one that was used last year. The riders speed down a technical descent before they continue along slightly ascending roads to Bologna where they turn left to head through the city centre.
With 39.3km 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 will reach the finish line for the to start the first of 4 laps on the 9.3km finishing circuit that consists of a descent which 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 during 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. In 2014, 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 and last year Jan Bakelants won the race by anticipating the favourites, Regardless of the way things pan out, one thing is guaranteed: only a splendid climber will be crowned winner of the 99th Giro dell'Emilia.
As an autumn classic, the Giro dell’Emilia has not always had the best weather but unlike last year the riders will have great conditions in 2016. Saturday will be sunny with a maximum temperature of 24 degrees. There will only be a light wind from an easterly direction which means that the riders will have a crosswind almost all day. On the final climb, the riders will have a cross-tailwind.
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 San Luca climb for the final time and then the legs do the talking in the finale. However, as Carlos Betancur proved in 2011, Angel Madrazo nearly showed in 2014 and Jan Bakelants proved last year, it is possible to make a long-distance move. However, the stronger field of climbers for this year’s race means that the racing is likely to be a lot more controlled and there should be plenty of interest in setting up a battle between the best on the final climb.
To win the race, you have to be a solid climber. No one is going to win a race that finishes on the steep San Luca ascent without possessing a goof 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.
If it all comes down to a battle on San Luca, we will put our money on Esteban Chaves. The Colombian has done the Vuelta twice and every year he has come out of the race in outstanding form. Last year he was maybe the strongest rider in Il Lombardia until cramps took him out of contention and he went on to take overall victory at the Abu Dhabi Tour. This year he even finished the race much fresher than he has done in the past so there is a big chance that he will be even stronger this time around.
The San Luca climb suits Chaves pretty well. He may be known as a climber but he is actually pretty punchy too. He has a decent kick on a short, steep climb like this and won’t be easy to beat in an uphill sprint. Furthermore, he is backed by a strong team with Damien Howson and the two Yates brothers ready to set him up for the finale. History shows that Chaves is very strong at this time of the year and so he is our favourite.
His biggest rival will probably be Bauke Mollema. The Dutchman has been climbing better than ever in 2016 and he seems to be back on form after the Tour de France. He did well to win the time trial at the Tour of Alberta and he was one of the best on the climbs in the Canadian classics. Furthermore, he is actually pretty explosive on short climbs and in past Vueltas, he proved that he is very comfortable when the roads get very steep. San Luca suits him very well which he already proved in 2011 when he finished second behind Betancur and was the strongest rider in the race. This year he could very well get his revenge.
Ag2r have a few cards to play. The best is probably Romain Bardet who is very motivated to end the year on a high. In Canada, he showed that his form is good but those races were too easy for him. He got his racing speed back at Thursday’s Coppa Sabatini and will be ready to strike in a race that suits him well. The climb is a bit short to suit him perfectly but his many top 10 finishes at Liege-Bastogne-Liege proves that he can do well on this kind of climb too.
Astana have a really solid block of climbers but only one of them has shown great form. Fabio Aru was not at his best in Canada but at the European Championships and the Giro della Toscana he showed that he is getting better. He is very motivated to make up for his poor Tour in the Italian classics and this is one of his best chances. The final climb is a bit too short to suit him perfectly but he is still one of the best climbers here and has done well on similar climbs in the past.
Daniel Moreno has not been at his best in 2016 but just like in 2015 he seems to have come out of the Vuelta in great form. Last year he finished second in Il Lombardia and this year he has already taken third at the European Championships. Moreno is not a pure climber but on a short, steep climb like San Luca he is one of the best in the world. He may not be as consistent as he once was but if he has the form he had in September and October last year, he should be a very strong contender in this kind of finale.
Rigoberto Uran has had a bad first year with Cannondale and now hopes to save the season in the last few races. In Canada, he indicated that his form is pretty good so he could be a strong contender in the Italian classics. He is pretty explosive and fast in an uphill sprint so San Luca is a climb that suits him really well.
One of the in-form riders of the moment is Diego Ulissi. The Italian did very well in Canada where he set Rui Costa up for the attack on the hardest climb in Montreal and still had enough left to stay with the best on the climbs and finish third in the sprint. Surprisingly, he was not at his best in the European Championships but he has always been a bit inconsistent. There is no doubt that his form is good and as he is a former winner of the race, he has proved that he can handle San Luca. The question is whether he can win in a field than is much stronger than usual as he is not a real climber.
Cannondale also have Davide Formolo whose great Vuelta finally confirmed what he showed in 2014. If he has returned to his best and recovered from the Vuelta, he should be very strong on a climb like this. He seemed to be one of the in-form riders in the final week and when he combines forces with Uran, Cannondale have cards to play.
We are very curious to see how Domenico Pozzovivo will do in this race. The Italian has not been at his best since he crashed out of last year’s Giro. However, there are indications that he may be returning to his best. He was very strong in the GP de Wallonie which is a race that doesn’t suit him at all. If he is back at the level he had in 2014 and the first part of the 2015, he is one of the best climbers in the world, especially on a short climb like this.
Michele Scarponi did a very good Vuelta even though a crash cost him a bit in the end. It remains to be seen how he hs recovered but he is one of the riders that have shown good form late in the season. This year he has proved that he is still one of the best climbers in the world.
While Adam seems to be in terrible condition, Simon Yates is a bit more of a question mark. The Brit seemed to be a bit tired in the final week of the Vuelta and we are not too confident that he has recovered for this race. On the other hand, it is a climb that suits his explosiveness down to the ground so if he has ended the Vuelta with good for, it’s a very good race for him.
Ben Hermans had a bit of a breakthrough as a climber in the Vuelta and his excellent performance at the European Championships proves that his form is still excellent. He is even more comfortable on relatively shot climbs than he is in the high mountains so he should find this race to his liking.
Finally, we will point to Miguel Angel Lopez. The Astana rider crashed out of the Vuelta and so his form is a big question mark. However, he seemed to be at a solid level in the Giro della Toscana and Coppa Sabatini. With a few races now in his legs, he could turn out to be very strong in a race that is tailor-made for his climbing skills.
***** Esteban Chaves
**** Bauke Mollema, Romain Bardet
*** Fabio Aru, Daniel Moreno, Rigoberto Uran, Diego Ulissi, Davide Formolo
** Domenico Pozzovivo, Michele Scarponi, Simon Yates, Ben Hermans, Miguel Angel Lopez
* Pierre Latour, Giovanni Visconti, Sergio Pardilla, Darwin Atapuma, Samuel Sanchez, Diego Rosa, Sebastien Reichenbach, Jakob Fuglsang, Damiano Caruso, Pello Bilbao, Kenny Elissonde, Moreno Moser, Jan Bakelants, Rudy Molard, Stephen Cummings, Guillaume Martin, Xandro Meurisse, Rodolfo Torres, Franco Pellizotti, Egan Bernal
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