Velonews: Bello Autumno: Six Can’t-miss Italian Classics


Jan 3, 2005
<figure ><img title="Cycling: 108th Tour of Lombardie 2014" src=""/><p>Il Lombardia takes on one of Italy's most storied climbs, the Madonna Del Ghisallo. Photo: Tim De Waele | <a href="" target="_blank"></a></p></figure><p><em><strong>Editor’s note:</strong> This article was originally published in the <a href="" target="_blank">October</a> issue of <a href=";sourceCode=I8ABNN" target="_blank">Velo magazine</a>.</em></p>
<p>For all the weeks-long, pink-wrapped glory of May’s Giro d’Italia, Italy has only a fleeting relationship with spring’s other main events, the classics. Yes, Milano-Sanremo is the longest one-day race on the professional calendar and the first monument of the season. And in only nine editions, Strade Bianche has carved out a spot among races a century more mature. But as prestigious as both races are, they can feel like a prelude to the march back north. The Mediterranean capi and Tuscan hill towns are quickly forgotten once tubular tires hit Belgian cobbles.</p>
<p>Autumn is another story. At the far end of the season, Italy takes center stage as the season’s final dramas play out on the southern side of the Alps.</p>
<p>The 110-year old Il Lombardia is the centerpiece of the fall calendar — the last of the five monuments and the only one not held in spring. Since the UCI moved the world championships from late August to the September-October timeframe in 1995, this race has also become the traditional debut of the rainbow jersey, particularly when the worlds course has smiled on the sort of rider who excels on the short, sharp climbs that mark Lombardia’s trip around Lago di Como. Two riders, Oscar Camenzind in 1998 and Paolo Bettini in 2006, have managed to parlay their world championship form into Lombardia wins the following week.</p>
<p>Lombardia is the star, but it is supported by an undercard rich in Italian cycling history and local flavor that is relatively undiluted by the sport’s global push. From the week before Lombardia through the following Sunday, northern Italy hosts another five classics ranging from UCI 1.HC to UCI 1.2 status. Their spring analogs — supporting races like the E3 Harelbeke and Dwars door Vlaanderen — have become well known to American audiences, thanks to the rise of live Internet feeds. But due perhaps to end-of-season fan fatigue, or to broader social and economic realities, the smaller Italian classics remain enigmatic.</p>
<p>Four days after the curtain falls on the Richmond worlds, Milano-Torino will open the 2015 Italian fall classics. The modest Thursday timeslot belies the race’s significance. It boasts six fewer editions than Liège-Bastogne-Liège — the race known as La Doyenne, and traditionally referred to as the oldest. But Milano-Torino debuted in 1876, 16 years before the Belgian classic, which makes it the oldest race on the professional calendar.</p>
<p>Old age is seldom achieved without change or trauma. Milano-Torino’s struggle to gain traction in its earliest years is reflected in the yawning 18-year gap between its first and second editions.</p>
<p>Several more years-long hiatuses followed before the race finally picked up momentum in 1913. And like many races, it suffered as Europe and its cyclists fought two world wars. There have been recent challenges, as well. In 1987, organizers uprooted the race from its traditional spring spot ahead of Milano-Sanremo and pushed it to the fall. It moved back in 2005, only to be transplanted again in 2008, when the ascendant Strade Bianche demanded its date. In 2000, the race was canceled due to the Po River flood that killed scores and displaced tens of thousands, and from 2008 through 2011, it was put on ice while organizer Associazione Ciclistica Arona and owner RCS battled over terms.</p>
<p>The renaissance came in 2012. With management issues resolved, organizers revived Milano-Torino and traded the customary flat finale in front of the Fausto Coppi Motovelodromo for two circuits up the five-kilometer, nine percent slopes of the Basilica di Superga climb east of town.</p>
<p>The reintroduction of the brutally steep Muro di Sormano climb to the Giro di Lombardia had a new group of lightweight contenders targeting that monument, and Milano-Torino’s newly challenging profile was a perfect tune-up.</p>
<p>The new finish impressed in its debut, when Alberto Contador attacked on the second trip up the Superga to take the first — and still only — one-day win of his career. Fourth-placed Joaquim Rodríguez won his first of two Lombardia titles three days later, while runner-up Diego Ulissi, one of Italy’s most promising young classics riders, returned to win Milano-Torino the following year.</p>
<p>Whoever wins Milano-Torino this year will have little time to savor the sunset over the Alps. Friday morning brings the start of the Gran Piemonte, which, until 2008, was known as the Giro del Piemonte. Like many of the fall classics, Piemonte has led a challenging existence, particularly during Europe’s recent economic troubles.</p>
<p>After a fairly steady run since its start in 1906, Piemonte first stumbled in 2007, when organizers could not raise enough sponsorship to host the race. It clawed back in 2008 but looked to be finished when it went dormant after the 2012 edition, won by Colombian Rigoberto Urán. But RCS resurrected the race for 2015 as part of its efforts to build a coordinated, sustainable, late-season calendar around Lombardia.</p>
<p>Written on rolling roads and short climbs in the far northern Apennines, Piemonte’s history is worth reviving. In 92 editions, Cino Cinelli, Felice Gimondi, and Eddy Merckx all claimed victories there. The great Gino Bartali, standard bearer for a generation of careers bisected by war, won Piemonte three times, twice in the late 1930s and again in 1951, when the race was held in June. In the sprint that brought “Gino the Pious” that final victory, Serse Coppi crashed on the tram tracks of Torino’s Corso Casale. He dusted himself off and returned to his hotel but died of a brain hemorrhage several hours later. A monument to Serse stands outside the velodrome named for his older brother, Fausto.</p>
<p>Piemonte’s modern history, while financially fraught, is less tragic. Thanks to the hiatus, Urán remains the defending champion. Daniele Bennati has claimed two wins, in 2006 and 2008, and Philippe Gilbert won Piemonte before both of his Lombardia wins in 2009 and 2010.</p>
<h2>Little Italy</h2>
<p>When the WorldTour calendar closes with Lombardia two days later, the non-Italian WorldTour teams and their stars will largely fade away into the off-season, depleted by three grand tours and a mandatory season that began in Australia in January. Those that are left will be split between the Italian races, French season closers Paris-Bourges and Paris-Tours, and a smattering of home-country obligations.</p>
<p>The last Italian races are fought out largely by indigenous second-division teams and the Eastern European squads that have gravitated to Italy since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Even without the flash of the big names, though, the end of the season sparkles. The crowds are smaller, but so are the buses. Riders mingle more and hide less.</p>
<p>The Thursday after Lombardia, the peloton swings southwest into Tuscany’s Pisa province for the 197-kilometer Gran Premio Citta di Peccioli-Coppa Sabatini. As the lengthy name suggests, the latest version of the 63-year-old race takes in three circuits up and around Peccioli, a hill town of fewer than 5,000 residents in the heart of Tuscany’s racing country. Sienna, home to Strade Bianche’s dramatic finish, lies just to the southeast, with Florence to the northwest. Though younger than the races that surround it, this one has been admirably durable, having missed only one start, in 1977.</p>
<p>The change from WorldTour to Italian national classic is palpable. While last year’s Lombardia featured six nationalities in the top 10 — and an Irish winner — no non-Italian has finished in the top seven of the Coppa Sabatini for the last two years. That race’s mix of winners also speaks to the unpredictable nature of late-season competition, shaped by summer’s illnesses and injuries, fueled by the desire to either salvage a catastrophic year or ride a hot streak a little bit longer. It’s a rare race that sees classics legends like Argentin, Tchmil, Bettini, and Gilbert listed as winners alongside stage-race specialists like Bernard, Chiapucci, Riis, and Ullrich.</p>
<p>Recently, Sabatini has favored youth. Diego Ulissi scored here in 2013, wedged in between victories at Milano-Torino and the Giro dell’ Emilia. Enrico Battaglin won as a neo-pro in 2011, and his teammate Sonny Colbrelli claimed last year’s title at age 24.</p>
<p>From Peccioli, the Italian peloton travels northeast across the Apennines to Emilia-Romagna for its closing weekend.</p>
<p>The course runs 200 kilometers through and around Bologna, with five rapid-fire trips up the two-kilometer, 10 percent climb to the Madonna di San Luca chapel in the final 40 kilometers. While the climb-heavy finale helped produce Colombian winners in Carlos Betancur and Nairo Quintana in recent years, enduring Italian Davide Rebellin won in 2014.</p>
<p>The serpentine history of Sunday’s season finale, the Giro della Romagna, reflects the trials of being at the bitter end of the calendar, where races struggle to attract scarce sponsorship money, waning fan attention, and the big stars that can help deliver both. First held in 1910, the race around Imola and Forli rolled through 86 editions, with the usual interruptions, until 2011, when it ran short of funding and merged with the similarly strapped Coppa Placci. In 2012, the Romagna name disappeared, while the Coppa Placci merged with the Giro del Veneto. Oscar Gatto won both those editions, which would mark the last editions of both Coppa Placci and Veneto (so far). For 2013 and 2014, the Romagna name returned, combined this time with the Memorial Marco Pantani, a race founded in 2004 to celebrate the life of the climber from nearby Cesenatico. This year, the two races are being held separately, with Pantani’s memorial race held on September 19, and Romagna, independent again, closing the Italian season on October 11.</p>
<p>There are races after the October classics in Italy. The faded Chrono des Nations soldiers on the next weekend in France, and the road season now stretches into November to accommodate new races in Asia, Africa, and South America. It is a positive sign for the sport. But as the sun sets in Emilia-Romagna in mid-October, it is only shutting its eyes for an ever-shorter winter hibernation.</p>
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