As the days shorten, temperatures cool and leaves fall from the trees, it’s time for the traditional swan song of the cycling season: Il Lombardia. Many riders have already hung up their cleats and are enjoying a well-earned off-season break, but for some of the top climbers who can compete in one-day Classics, and the Classics specialists with the best climbing legs, this is one more chance to win a major title this year.
With the World Championships having been brought forward from its usual slot of a fortnight before Il Lombardia to August, this year’s edition feels even more isolated on the calendar than usual, as the only top-tier one-day race to take place in the final two months of the season. But its status still guarantees a stacked start-list, and stars like Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič have in recent weeks been preparing for it by racing the other Italian Classics that precede it, such as Giro dell’Emilia (won by Roglič) and Tre Valli Varesine (where both Slovenians missed out after an opportunistic attack from Soudal–Quick-Step's Ilan Van Wilder).
Compared to the other four Monuments, the route of Il Lombardia changes regularly, and this year, continues the pattern of alternating the direction of travel each year by starting in Como and finishing at Bergamo. It’s pretty much the same route as the 2021 edition, with the famous Madonna del Ghisallo (where a church and shrine to cycling can be found) being the first of seven climbs. The penultimate of these, Passo di Ganda, is likely to be the definitive point, and it was on the 7.1% slopes of this 9.2km climb that Pogačar made his race-winning attack two years ago. But the trend in cycling for even earlier attacks might make the preceding double-header of Zambla Alta and Dossena in quick succession 30km earlier even more inviting.
Race profile sourced via the Il Lombardia website
Pogačar is set to ride in search of a third successive Il Lombardia title, but faces stiffer competition than either of his two previous victories. Here’s who we’ve picked out as the top contenders.
By the ludicrously high standards he has set in recent years, you sense that Tadej Pogačar still needs to win Il Lombardia for his 2023 to be truly on par with his success of previous seasons. The year got off to an astounding start with successive victories at the Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne, plus overall titles at Paris-Nice and Ruta Del Sol, but was brought to halt when he fractured his wrist at Liège–Bastogne–Liège, which may also have contributed to him again losing to Jonas Vingegaard at the Tour de France.
He hasn’t actually won a race since the penultimate stage of the Tour de France, finishing between second and fifth in all four of the autumnal Italian Classics he’s ridden. But he has the winning experience at this race, and a super-strong UAE Team Emirates line-up featuring the likes of Adam Yates and Marc Hirschi in support, to become the first rider in 74 years to complete a hat-trick of successive victories here.
Primož Roglič’s name has been on everyone’s lips these past few weeks, as the rumour mill goes into overdrive regarding his future. It has now been announced that he'll be riding for Bora-Hansgrohe in 2024, so this will be his last ever race for Jumbo-Visma, the team he has ridden for since 2016. The stage is set for a romantic send-off, and he appears to have the form too having won Giro dell'Emilia last weekend — but it’s worth noting that on the previous two occasions he’s won that race in 2019 and 2021, he came up short at Il Lombardia, finishing seventh and fourth respectively.
Whereas Pogačar and Roglič have spent the last week or so racing each other in Italian semi-Classics, Remco Evenepoel has exclusively trained rather than raced since his three-stage haul at the Vuelta a España last month, meaning his form is unknown. Similarly uncertain is the future of his Soudal–Quick-Step team amid rumours of a merger with Jumbo-Visma, but if this to be their last hurrah, they’ll want to go out with a bang, and have an all-star line-up supporting Evenepoel that will likely include former runners-up here Julian Alaphilippe and Fausto Masnada, and recent surprise Tre Valli Varesine winner Ilan Van Wilder.
In theory, the hilly parcours of Il Lombardia, and its similarities to the Liège–Bastogne–Liège and San Sebastián Classics he’s each won twice, should be ideal for Evenepoel, but in practice he has yet to impress here, finishing down in 19th on his last appearance in 2021, and so perilously crashing down a ravine the year before. Form permitting, there’s no reason why he shouldn't vastly improve upon those results this time.
If one rider is to cause an upset by getting the better of the Big Three, it’s likely to be Richard Carapaz. The EF Education-EasyPost rider is at long last enjoying a good spell in what had hitherto been a frustrating season of injuries and poor form, placing seventh and second at Giro dell’Emilia and Tre Valli Varesine respectively, on both occasions being the only rider able to follow Pogačar and Roglič’s attacks on the uphills. The way he slipped clear of them with a late attack in the final stages of the latter, in a manner reminiscent of how he took the gold medal ahead of them both at the Tokyo Olympics two years ago, may be a blueprint as to how he might win on Saturday.
Enric Mas arrived at last year’s Il Lombardia in the form of his life, having been Evenepoel’s main rival during his runner-up ride at the Vuelta before defeating Pogačar to win the Giro dell’Emilia, and maintained that level to again follow Pogačar’s every move at Il Lombardia, only to just miss out in a two-up sprint. This year, the Movistar rider has again decided to extend his season beyond the Vuelta, but hasn’t quite reached those same heights, finishing fifth overall at the Vuelta and fourth at Giro dell’Emilia. Still, that’s an improvement on how the rest of his 2023 has gone, and if his form is about to peak, he’ll pose a significant threat.
Three years ago, Aleksandr Vlasov announced himself at WorldTour level by finishing third at Il Lombardia, and has since then gone on to become an accomplished GC contender at Grand Tours as well as a candidate for hilly Classics. The major victory his talent is capable of has so far eluded him, but could that change on Saturday? Winning in such a quality field is a big ask, but the way he managed to out-sprint both Pogačar and Roglič for third-place at Tre Valli Varesine earlier this week suggests the Bora-Hansgrohe rider poses a real threat in the event of a small group sprint.
Competing in his last-ever race as a professional before retiring, Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) is sure to attract plenty of attention on Saturday, especially on the final climb of Colle Aperto, where hundreds of members of his supporters club have arranged to assemble. His results in recent weeks suggest he hasn’t got the form to repeat his success here in 2018, but drama always seems to follow Pinot, so expect him to have some sort of impact on the race.
As for the local Italian fans, Giulio Ciccone (Lidl-Trek) had looked set to be their best hope for a first win here for the nation in six years, but a crash at Tre Valli Varesine has plunged his participation into doubt. Instead, Filippo Zana (Jayco-Alula) might be their best shout.
The hilly nature of the parcours means that strong puncheurs like Andreas Kron (Lotto-Dstny) will find it difficult to stay in contention, though the Dane’s recent form at the Vuelta and the European Championships make him difficult to ignore. Even Michael Woods (Israel Premier Tech), usually one of the best and most dependable in hilly Classics, sometimes finds himself dropped out of contention on these climbs, and has only made the top five here once.
Instead, it’s purer climbers like Carlos Rodriguez (Ineos Grenadiers) and Ben O’Connor (AG2R Citroën) who have the attributes to excel here; and Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious), who in finishing fifth overall at the Vuelta was beginning to show some sign of the form that saw him place third here last year.
Il Lombardia 2023 prediction
It’s difficult to pick a favourite out of Pogačar, Roglič and Evenepoel, and the presence of such a powerful and evenly matched trio could even, counterintuitively, increase the chances of an outsider winning, if they wind up marking each other out of it. That said, we’re picking Tadej Pogačar for victory. He’s a favourite for pretty much every race he competes in, but there might not be a single race on the calendar that is better suited to his attributes than Il Lombardia.
*Cover image by Tim de Waele/Getty Images