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The Falling Leaves
Words by Max Leonard
When the professional peloton take to the roads between Milan and Como for the Race of the Falling Leaves this coming Saturday, there’s a good chance the foglie morte will still be clinging to their branches. The UCI last year ordered the Lombardia move two weeks forward, ostensibly so that participants can make the most of their World Champs form. It also makes room for a new ProTour race, the Tour of Hangzhou.
The Lombardia is the final Monument of the season, the traditional bookend to spring’s Milan-Sanremo and, while there are an increasing amount of exotic and sunny leg-stretchers at the beginning of the year for those who are fast out of the traps – not to mention the Omloop and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne – to trump the Lombardia seems somehow wrong. With due respect to Huangzhou – which has been cancelled in its debut year [ inrng.com] due to inadequate preparation, adding to the farce – the race has lost before it has even started.
photo: Gavin Campbell
Firstly it’s fitting that the European season, baptised in cycle-mad Flanders, is laid to rest in style, in the heartland of Italian cycling. Design blog ElCyclista accompanies its evocative pictures of the region with the note that: "They live and breathe riding here. Lombardia has over 700 registered cycling clubs with over 12,000 members. If you are wondering what they all do for the year, they have a choice of over 1200 races to choose from” [ Elcyclista]
Secondly is that it seems so embedded in cycling ancestry. Traditionally the final top-level race in the calendar, and a Monument to boot, it often takes in the legendary climb to the Madonna del Ghisallo chapel, a shrine to cycling’s history and heroes. It’s also somewhat of a final jolly, seeming to connect back to the time when riders – even the greatest – were winding down their road seasons and preparing for the six day races or a winter of cyclocross.
Black and white photos by Gavin Campbell
Historically, the race belongs to Coppi who has a record five wins. (In ’46, ’48 and ’49, he took Milan-Sanremo, too, and in ’49 the Giro and the Tour as well. Busy man.) His mentor Alfredo Binda has four, and the names left trailing, but victorious, in their wake read like a roll-call of Italian greats: Constante Girardengo, Cino Cinelli (one of his two Classics wins) and Gino Bartali; Motta, Bitossi, Gimondi and Moser. Sean Kelly won three times, Merckx and De Vlaeminck twice; Hinault, with characteristic sound and fury, set the seal on an unforgettable year in 1979 with a win in Como, and when the young Professor, Fignon, took the Tour, took the Lombardia again as if in compensation. Tom Simpson is the race’s only British winner, in 1965, the year he was also world champion.
It’s actually the most mutable of Monuments. Look back and you’ll find that in its first incarnation, in 1905, it started and ended in Milan; since then, it has moved to almost every major town in Lombardy, the green, forested region in the lee of the Alps which rises towards the mountains from the industrial plain around Milan. In 2004, it even started in Switzerland. And for the first twenty years or so, it took place in mid November, when those leaves were well and truly fallen and the riders must have been wishing that the architects would hurry up with Milan’s Vigorelli velodrome, not built until 1935.
Perhaps it’s because its character and imagery are so firmly imprinted in the mind that it can be moved so much: the sharp, autumnal reds, oranges and greens contrasting with the pastel colours of the resort towns; the smooth black tarmac shining with surface water as against the deep green hills; the mists rising off the lake. When the weather’s kind, it’s the model to which all autumn riding must measure up. Close your eyes, and there it is – what’s the Italian for ‘mellow fruitfulness’? Of course, when it’s absolutely chucking it down, it’s good fun too, or at least to watch. Yet when the weather is too good – like last year’s warm, sunny Falling Leaves – it loses something. And by taking place earlier in the year, it risks being diminished too much, too soon.
The Rapha Lombardia Jersey was inspired by this most romantic of classics, looking to a story which delves back into a darker era, to the time of the sport's first supervillain, Giovanni Gerbi. The 'Diavolo Rosso', as he was known, won the race's first edition, in 1905, on 12th November.
Never before has the Lombardia taken place in September. It is now being held six weeks earlier than it was in Gerbi’s time. The Diavolo Rosso would scarcely recognise it now, in its modern pomp, beamed live into homes in scores of countries around the world. It is still the last Classic in the season, can still be a career highlight or burnish an already successful palmarès. In the last five years it’s seen gutsy rides from big names such as Bettini, Cunego and Gilbert, all of whom have won twice or more, and the lesser-known Oliver Zaugg, whose well-placed attack won the race last year. Whatever the outcome this year, it’ll be a race worth celebrating.
- RT @rapharacing: A Rapha travel set is up for grabs in Alpe D'Quiz today, featuring a luxurious Rapha Skincare bundle and Wash Bag. → http:…
- Somewhat late to the party, but be sure to check out the film to the recent Gentlemen's Race in… http://t.co/RMZUDuxWRc
- A Rapha travel set is up for grabs in Alpe D'Quiz today, featuring a luxurious Rapha Skincare bundle and Wash Bag. → http://t.co/3n8XlqiNYq
- Cool to see our friends @chriskingbuzz representing in the mix of the elite men's race. #mycielo Parbo! http://t.co/L8g8gNofyR
- The masked man on the cyclocross course today was @jeremypowers. It was that cold. http://t.co/KztIjCYu4O
- Calm and confident on the snow - Katerina Nash is off to an early lead. http://t.co/8TynNP7Nho
- Mr. McDonald's tire choice for today's snowy conditions. Can you guess his PSI? http://t.co/2iHgOw6sUw
- They reopened the ice covered fly-over here in Bend. http://t.co/6xOs5BSd0W
- River City Bicycles racer Ryan (Dream) Weaver 2_wicked_awesome powered his way to a chilly 2nd in the… http://t.co/HDDjDnS99w
- Meanwhile over in Bend, Oregon it is a bright, crisp day for cyclocross racing. http://t.co/6lcDQK5UNX