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 races for puncheurs and climbers earlier in the week, Thursday’s Gran Piemonte gives the sprinters a chance to go for glory and test their condition for the World Championships.
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 10 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.
The series kicked off with Coppa Bernocchi, Coppa Agostoni and Memorial Marco Pantani and last week things got even more intense with no less than four races. The final week is highlighted by Saturday’s Il Lombardia but before we get to the big finale, three of the biggest races in Italy will serve as a warm-up. On Tuesday, the classics riders and strong sprinters went for glory in Tre Valli Varesine, the climbers wer in action in Wednesday’s Milano-Torino and the sprinters hope to fine-tune their form for the Worlds in Thursday’s GranPiemonte.
Like the other races this week, GranPiemonte is a very old race that was first held in 1906. Unlike Milan-Turin which had a very rocky start, it established itself very quickly and during the 20th century, it was only cancelled in 1909, 1943, 1944, 1975 and 1976. For most of the time, it has been held as the final warm-up race for Il Lombardia and it has been won by most of the Italian greats. Alfredo Binda, Gino Bartali, Fiorenzo Magni, Felice Gimondi, Francesco Moser, Gianni Bugno, Claudio Chiappucci, Franco Ballerini, Andrea Tafi and Daniele Bennati are among the local riders to have taken the win while the foreign winners include Rudi Altig, Eddy Mercx, Roger De Vlaeminck, Adrie van der Poel, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, Erik Breukink, Richard Virenque, Philippe Gilbert, Daniel Moreno and Rigoberto Uran. It is famously known for a fatal crash in 1951 that cost the life of Fausto Coppi’s brother Serse.
Like many other Italian races, it has come into financial difficult in the 2000s. In 2007, it was cancelled but it managed to return to the calendar one year later. Unfortunately, the 2013 and 2014 were both cancelled too and it briefly looked like it might have disappeared for good. Luckily, Giro d’Italia organizers RCS Sport have managed to save the event which again seems to flourish and now it is again part of their Trittico Autunno race series which also includes Milan-Turin and Il Lombardia. Held over four days in late September/early October, the three races now form one of the most prestigious blocks of one-day races in the autumn.
GranPiemonte stands out in the three-race series. While the other two races are suited to climbers, GranPiemonte is more geared to fast finishers. Unlike many other Italian one-day races which have pretty fixed formats, the course and locations vary significantly from year to year as the race visits different parts of the Piemonte region. Hence, the courses can be vastly different and even though they are mostly suited to a core group of puncheurs and strong sprinters, the group of favourites can change from year to year. This is reflected in the list of winners which include riders from almost every end of the spectrum. The fact that the World Championships are for sprinters seems to have prompted RCS to design a relatively easy course for 2016.
Last year the sprinters were denied by Jan Bakelants who attacked in the torrential rain to hold off a reduced bunch by 4 seconds. Matteo Trentin beat Sonny Colbrelli in the sprint for second on a day when many riders abandoned due to the bad weather.
As said, the course changes from year to year and the course for the 100th edition of the race has nothing in common with the one that was used 12 months ago. This year the riders will cover 207km between Diano d’Alba and Aglié and as most of the day will be spent on the Po Valley, it is an almost completely flat run to the northeast. However, it’s a pretty tough stat as the first 10km are uphill before the riders descend to the long, flat section.
With 33.7km to go, the peloton will hit the main challenge, the Alice Superiore climb (7km, 5%). The top comes with 27.9m to go and they are almost all slightly descending. However, the road gradually starts to ride with 5km to go. At first, it is barely noticeable but in the final kilometre, it gets harder. For the first 500m, the average gradient is just 1.8% but the final 500m average 4.2%. There is a very technical section with around 4km to go but from there it is a long road that only has a few slight bends.
With the constant changes to the course, you can’t use previous editions of the race to predict much at GranPiemonte. However, the terrain in Piemonte doesn’t vary much so the race always seems to suit the same kind of riders. Mostly, it is decided in a reduced bunch sprint but the finish can be vastly different from year to year. Some editions have been suited to puncheurs while other years have been the perfect stomping ground for real sprinters that have managed to overcome the climbs.
This year the course is mostly flat but there is a pretty long climb in the finale which will definitely take some of the fast finishers out of contention. At the same time, it is the perfect place to launch an attack and try to prevent a bunch sprint. However, there’s a long way to go to the finish and the slightly descending roads clearly favour the peloton. Hence, it won’t be easy to stay away and the fact that the weather will be very pleasant with bright sunshine and little wind will only make it harder for the attackers to make a difference.
Nonetheless, there are a few teams that want to try to make the race hard. Ag2r, Astana, Cannondale, Cofidis and Katusha all want to avoid a sprint and Movistar and BMC will definitely try to go on the attack too. We have no doubt that those teams will try to make the race hard and we expect riders like Philippe Gilbert, Rui Costa, Giovanni Visconti, Jan Bakelants, Tom-Jelte Slagter and Alberto Bettiol to go on the attack here.
However, Etixx-QuickStep, the Italian national team, Bardiani, Tinkoff and maybe Sky will have their eyes fully on a bunch sprint and especially the strong Etixx team will be able to make a difference. Even though there are some very strong classics riders here, we doubt that it will be possible to avoid a bunch sprint. It won’t be a complete field though as the climb will take its toll and many of the fast finishers will be left behind.
In a sprint, it is important to notice that the final 500m are uphill at 4.2% and as it comes at the end of a pretty tough finale, the puncheurs will be able to mix it up with the sprinters. This turns it into a very interesting sprint where several riders can be in the mix.
Etixx-QuickStep have the strongest team in the race and they will be led by Fernando Gaviria. The Colombia is tailor-made for third kind of race as he is a very good climber and one of the fastest sprinters in the world. He has only done three races since he left the track at the end of his Olympics campaign but his aggressive riding in both Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen and GP Impanis shows that his form is good. Sports director Brian Holm has told that reports from the camp is that Gaviria is absolutely flying and his second place in Koelskamp and first play in GP Impanis has provided him with lots of confidence.
On paper, Gaviria is probably the fastest rider in the field and he is not afraid of this kind of uphill sprint. Furthermore, he has by far the best lead-out with Fabio Sabatini, Maximilano Richeze and Matteo Trentin and they are all strong enough to survive the climb. This puts him in a great position and the combination of a great train and the fastest legs should give Gaviria the win.
Giacomo Nizzolo leads the Italian national team and goes into the race with the knowledge that he had the best legs of the entire season at the Eneco Tour. He didn’t get the result he was looking for but he is apparently in excellent form. This is the kind of hilly race that he prefers and as he proved in stage 6 of the Eneco Tour where he won the sprint behind the break, he is very strong in an uphill sprint. He is surrounded by lots of fast riders to do the lead-out and even though they don’t have much experience, they should be able to position him well. Nizzolo doesn’t need much of a train so if he can just be close to the front, he won’t be easy to beat here.
The in-form rider at the moment is of course Sonny Colbrelli. The Italian is in his last race for Bardiani and would love to leave the team with another win. In a flat sprint, he wouldn’t have a chance against the likes of Gaviria and Nizzolo who are a lot faster than him but things could be different in an uphill finale. The hard race should also benefit Colbrelli who has proved that he can beat almost anyone in this kind of finish.
BMC have both Philippe Gilbert and Jempy Drucker but this relatively easy finale should make it a race for the Luxembourger. He got a breakthrough win in the Vuelta and in general he has been sprinting very well this autumn. He is climbing well and should easily overcome the climbs and even though his isolation left him without a result, the GP Beghelli showed that his form is really good. He prefers uphill sprints, positions himself great and is backed by a very strong team so he can definitely win this race.
Movistar have Juan Jose Lobato. The Spaniard has shown no kind of form recently but we still won’t rule him out. He is in contention for leadership of the Spanish team at Worlds so he must have some kind of condition. In the past he has proved that he is maybe the best uphill sprinter in the world. The question is whether he has the form to survive the climbs and whether he can overcome his huge problems in the fight for position. However, the finale is technically very easy and this will give him a chance in a sprint that is tailor-made for him.
Tinkoff have an in-form Daniele Bennati who has been sprinting very well this autumn. He won a stage in Denmark, was close to victory at the Vuelta and won the Giro della Toscana overall. He is a great climber and should easily overcome the challenges here. Furthermore, he likes this kind of uphill sprint.
Sacha Modolo will lead Lampre-Merida but he won’t have too much confidence. This year he hasn’t rallu been competitive in the sprints, mainly because of the loss of Richeze as his lead-out man. However, this hard race should still suit him pretty well as does the uphill finishing straight. This will be less about positioning and more about speed at the end of a hard race and Modolo seems to be in good form.
Sky have Elia Viviani who hopes to prove that he is ready to lead Italy in Qatar. However, the Italian hasn’t shown much form since Rio and he hasn’t been able to overcome the climbs in the races he has done so far. Furthermore, he fell ill before the Eneco Tour. The uphill sprint should be manageable for him – just remember his stage win at last year’s Giro – but we doubt that he will be with the best in the end. Ben Swift is the back-up plan but he is probably not fast enough to win.
Wilier have an in-form Filippo Pozzato who recently finished second in GP Beghelli and has been up there in most of the Italian classics. The form is clearly good and he has been sprinting very well recently. In a flat sprint, some riders are faster than him but in this finale he has a chance. Manuel Belletti is the team’s second option and he likes an uphill sprint. Unfortunately, his form has been bad recently.
Nicola Ruffoni won GP Beghelli and is finally showing the potential he has always had. Most remarkably, he is now able to overcome much harder climbs than he has done in the past. However, this race is probably a bit too hard for him and the uphill sprint doesn’t suit him perfectly. Furthermore, he is likely to support Colbrelli in this kind of finale, especially as it’s Colbrelli’s final race for Bardiani.
Francesco Gavazzi is stronger than he has been for several years. He won Memorial Marco Pantani and recently he impressed with a very aggressive ride and a third place at Tre Valli Varesine. There are faster riders like him here but in an uphill sprint he may be competitive, especially after a hard race.
Finally, we will point to Roman Maikin. The Russian took a breakthrough win in an uphill sprint at Tour du Limousin and in general this is the kind of finales in which he really specializes. He has shown great form recently and should definitely be competitive here.
***** Fernando Gaviria
**** Giacomo Nizzolo, Sonny Colbrelli
*** Jempy Drucker, Juan Jose Lobato, Daniele Bennati
** Sacha Modolo, Elia Viviani, Filippo Pozzato, Nicolas Ruffoni, Franceco Gavazzi, Ben Swift, Roman Maikin, Manuel Belletti
* Philippe Gilbert, Rui Costa, Giovanni Visconti, Jan Bakelants, Matteo Trentin, Tom-Jelte Slagter, Eduard Prades, Alberto Bettiol, Matti Breschel, Grega Bole, Simone Ponzi, Davide Vigano, Paolo Simion
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