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 two hectic weeks, the final week in the triptych is made up of four of the biggest races on the Italian calendar and it all kicks off with one of the oldest Italian classics, Tre Valli Varesine, which will see the puncheurs and strong sprinters battle it out for the top honours in the final event of the Trittico Lombardo series.
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 will go for glory in Tuesday’s Tre Valli Varesine, the climbers will be in action in Wednesday’s Milan-Turin and the sprinters hope to fine-tune their form for the Worlds in Thursday’s Gran Piemonte.
While the latter three races are organized by RCS Sport and so have very similar line-ups of teams, Tre Valli Varesine distinguishes itself as the only race held by a different organizer. The race was first held in 1919 and is one of the most prestigious cycling events in Italy. Together with Coppa Agostoni and Coppa Bernocchi, it makes up the Trittico Lombardo race series and it is by far the biggest race in the triptych. When the series was introduced in 1997, the intention was to hold the three races on three consecutive days and have an overall classification that recognizes the best rider in the three-day block. While the overall classification has remained in place, the calendar was changed a few years ago. Tre Valli Varesine is no longer held in the same week as the two Coppas and instead it is the big finale two weeks after the first two races.
Tre Valli Varesine has only been cancelled twice since the first edition and has been won by most of the Italian titans as riders like Gino Bartali, Fausto Coppa, Fiorenzo Magni, Gianni Motta, Francesco Moser, Giuseppe Saronni, Gianni Bugno, Claudio Chiappucci and Vincenzo Nibali have all come out on top. Of course Eddy Merckx has also won the race but a foreign winner is a rarity. In fact, only six editions had been won by non-Italian riders when Dan Martin won the race in 2010. In recent years, the race has had a more international flavor as only two of the last six editions have been won by local riders.
Like most other Italian one-day races, the line-up has been boosted significantly by the changed dates for the Worlds. This year the climbers are desperately looking for places to prepare for Il Lombardia as they won’t be attending the Worlds in its usual September slot. The only place to do so is in Italy where the many autumn classics have attracted much better line-ups than usual. That’s also the case for Tre Valli Varesine which will have no less than 10 WorldTour teams in attendance.
Unlike many other classics, Tre Valli Varesine doesn’t have a fixed course. In fact, the route has varied a lot. Some editions have been for climbers while others have suited classics riders and puncheurs. However, the race has had an almost unchanged format in the last few years and it seems that the organizers have now fixed the route which has tipped the balance away from the climbers. Instead, a lumpy circuit in Varese has made it an ideal event for strong sprinters and classics riders.
Nonetheless, it is possible to make a difference on the late climbs which is what an in-form Vincenzo Nibali did last year where he claimed a solo win to show that he was on fire for Il Lombardia. Sergey Firsanov made a late attack to take second and Giacomo Nizzolo won a 14-rider sprint for third.
As said, the organizers seemed to have found a fixed format for the race and for the third year in a row, most of the event will be held on the well-known circuit in Varese that was used for the 2008 World Championships. The starting city has varied a bit during the three years but the finale has been unchanged.
The 96th edition of the race will take off from Saronno from where the riders will travel along flat toads to towards Varese. After 55km of racing, they will tackle the climb to Orino before descending to Varese where they will cross the line for the first time at the 77.69km mark.
The final part of the race consists of 9 laps of the 12.8km circuit. After just 1km, the riders will tackle the small Montello climb (2.25km, 4.5%) before they take on a long descent. With 3.6km to go, the riders hit a 2.9km climb that averages 3.9%. The top comes with 1km to go, and from there it is a flat run to the finish, with the final turn coming 800m from the line.
This is the third year in a row that the race finishes on the same circuit so we now know a much about what to expect. When it was first used in 2014, a small group with Michael Albasini, Sonny Colbrelli, Filippo Pozzato, Davide Rebellin, Damiano Caruso, Mauro Finetto, Kristijan Durasek, Edoardo Zardini and Enrico Gasparotto escaped on the Montello climb and went on to decide the race in a sprint, with Albasini taking the win ahead of Colbrelli and Pozzato. Last year the race was slightly less selective as the front group was made up of 16 riders but Nibali proved that it is possible for an in-form climber to claim a solo win. However, the race also showed that it was possible for sprinters like Giacomo Nizzolo and Kristian Sbaragli to make the selection.
As it was the case two years ago, it is likely that the riders will face some rain in the middle of the afternoon. This will make the descent a bit tricky as Enrico Gasparotto will know. The Italian crashed out of the lead group two years ago. At the same time, it will make the race a bit more selective.
Most of the teams have a fast finisher who is strong on short climbs but their climbing level is different. Several teams have a clear interest in making the race as hard as possible. Most notably, that’s the case for the Astana team which has a formidable team of climbers. On paper, they probably have the strongest line-up in the race but they don’t have a fast finisher. Hence, their only chance is to try to blow the race to pieces like they did last year before they set Nibali up for his attack. This year they hope to do the same with Fabio Aru or Diego Rosa and with the likes of Nibali, Miguel Anegl Lopez, Tanekl Kangert, Dario Cataldo and Jakob Fuglsang, they can really do some damage. Lampre-Merida ad the strong Movistar team also want a hard race an Cannondale will have similar plans.
With so many good climbers keen to make the race tough, we expect a pretty selective edition. However, the field is so strong that we doubt that anyone will be able to do what Nibali did last year. This year the line-up is excellent and the climbs are not hard enough to drop everybody here. To take a solo win, you need a bit of luck to benefit from the tactical situation at a point when there aren’t many domestiques left.
In our opinion, there are two possible outcomes: either we get a sprint from a small group like we had in 2014 or one or more riders will take advantage of a hard race and a lack of domestiques to make a successful attack in the finale. However, we expect teams like BMC, Orica-BikeEchange, Dimension Data and Wilier to go for a sprint and as they are likely to have more riders in the finale, we will put our money on a sprint from a small group.
That makes Sonny Colbrelli our favourite. The Italian has improved his climbing significantly and nowadays it is virtually impossible to drop him on a climb like this. Last week he almost followed the likes of Aru and Visconti on a much harder climb at the Giro della Toscana and this speaks volumes about how strong he is. This race is not too different from Amstel Gold Race where he won the sprint for third behind the two attackers and in general this kind of finale with a flat finish after a short climb is ideal for him.
Colbrelli has been on fire since August and has already won five races, most recently Coppa Sabatini last Thursday. He is faster than most in this race and among the riders capable of making the selection he is probably the fastest. The problem is that he may be isolated in the finale and as no one wants to sprint against him, he may lose out in the tactical battle. However, as a sprint finish is the most likely outcome, Colbrelli is our favourite.
Filippo Pozzato was already close to victory two years ago and now he seems to be riding at a very similar level. He has been riding really well in the last few weeks and more importantly he has been sprinting extremely well. Last Sunday he beat much faster riders to take second at the GP Beghelli and the sprint here suits him a lot more as it comes much closer to the climb. The circuit is not too hard for Pozzato and with the way, he is sprinting at the moment he seems to be capable of beating everyone here.
Daniele Bennati is one of the fastest riders here and he goes into the race in outstanding condition. Like Colbrelli, he almost followed Aru and Visconti on the hardest climbs in Giro della Toscana which he won. He may not be climbing as well as Colbrelli but he is a much faster sprinter which he proved in the Tuscan race. This year he has been sprinting at his best level for several years and he goes into the race with lots of confidence. The circuit is a bit on the limit for him but if he makes it, we doubt that anyone can beat him in a sprint.
Orica-BikeExchange have three potential winners of the race. Magnus Cort is the fastest but the poorest climber. Michael Albasini is the strongest but he is the slowest. Jens Keukeleire is in the middle both when it comes to climbing and sprinting skills and he may actually turn out to be their best card. He has been in outstanding form since the Vuelta where he won a stage that should have been too hard for him. Last Sunday he finished third in Tre Valli Varesine even though he was doing the lead-out for Cort. The circuit could be too tough for him but with the form he has shown, we have confidence that he will make it. The question is whether he will be fresh enough to do his best sprint.
Michael Albasini will be the back-up plan. The Swiss is a former winner of this race on this circuit which suits him down to the ground. He has won bunch sprints in the past so he can beat most in a sprint and he is very strong on this kind of climb. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to have the best form.
Magnus Cort will be the third card. The Dane is much more than a pure sprinter and he definitely has a chance. However, we doubt that he will make it if Astana go nuts so he has to be at his very best. If he makes it, he is likely to be the fastest.
BMC have a very strong team which is led by Philippe Gilbert. On paper it’s a perfect race for the Belgian but unfortunately he is not riding at his best. He didn’t shine at the European Championships but this course is easier so of course he will be there in the finale. The question is whether he is fast enough to beat a guy like Colbrelli in a sprint. That will be difficult and he doesn’t seem to have the form to get rid of the Italian.
Androni have Francesco Gavazzi whose victory at Memorial Marco Pantani shows that he is in great form. It’s a perfect course for him as he is strong on this kind of climb and fast in a sprint. He crashed in Toscana but has proved that he has recovered well. He should easily handle the climbs and even though heis not as fast as Colbrelli, he has proved that he can beat most of the riders here.
Last year Kristian Sbaragli survived the climb but he came up short in the sprint. This year the Italian should again be in the mix but unfortunately we doubt that he will have the legs after a hard race to win the sprint as there are faster riders than him. Sprinters Andrea Pasqualon, Grega Bole and Roman Maikin may also be able to survive and if they do, they should be among the fastest.
There are a number of in-form classics riders who are very fast in a flat sprint after a tough race Giovanni Visconti, Diego Ulissi, Anthony Roux, Pello Bilbao and Gianluca Brambilla all have the skills to win a sprint from a small group and they are among the best on a climb like this. Visconti, Roux and Ulissi have shown good form while it remains to be seen how Brambilla has recovered from the saddle sore that took him out of the European Championships. Unfortunately, we doubt that the course is hard enough for the quintet to get rid of the faster riders like Colbrelli.
Finally, we will point to the Cannondale pair of Rigoberto Uran and Moreno Moser. Both are in great form and among the best climbers in the race. Furthermore, they are fast in a sprint from a small group. It will be hard for them to get rid of the fastest riders but as Cannondale are likely to have strength in numbers, they may benefit from team tactics to make a race-winning attack.
***** Sonny Colbrelli
**** Filippo Pozzato, Daniele Bennati
*** Jens Keukeleire, Michael Albasini, Philippe Gilbert, Francesco Gavazzi, Magnus Cort
** Kristian Sbaragli, Giovanni Visconti, Diego Ulissi, Pello Bilbao, Anthony Roux, Andrea Pasqualon, Grega Bole, Moreno Moser, Rigoberto Uran, Gianluca Brambilla, Roman Maikin
* Eduard Prades, Simone Ponzi, Mauro Finetto, Maciej Paterski, Fabio Aru, Simon Geschke, Davide Villella, Rasmus Guldhammer, Matteo Busato, Diego Rosa, Manuel Belletti, Juan Jose Lobato, Paolo Toto, Salvatore Puccio
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