Vuelta stage 14: Ryder on the wall

What started as a gentle roll-out for the riders turned into a nightmare in the last few kilometres. One of those wall-like climbs that we’re so familiar with at the Vuelta slowed the race to walking pace, and brought about what Eurosport’s Carlton Kirby described as a “slow-motion boxing match under water” – an odd but apt description. Ryder Hesjedal responded to recent bad luck and crazy talk by winning a stage that even the motorbikes were struggling to finish, snatching the win from a brave Oliver Zaugg, while the GC contenders duked it out further down the slopes.
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Il Lombardia review

Pocket rocket Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) soloed to a historic win in today’s race – the last of the five monuments. He threw caution to the wind in the pouring rain, attacked on the final climb and held on to become the first ever Spaniard to win this race. The points from his victory all but ensured he will take the top spot in the UCI’s year-end WorldTour ranking, replicating his 2010 triumph. Indeed it was an all-Spanish speaking podium with runner-up (again) Samu Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Gran Piemonte winner, Colombian Rigoberto Uran in third.

First Spanish Il Lombardia victor: Joaquim Rodriguez (image courtesy of official race website)

Initial breakaway and several wantaways

The 251km race started out from Bergamo, on the occasion of Felice Gimondi’s 70th birthday, in wet conditions which combined with damp misty fog to cloak much of the race in mystery. A group of 11 riders – Emanuele Sella and Miguel Chavez (both Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela), Alberto Losada (Katusha), Frederico Rocchetti (Utensilnord Named), Tom Jelte Slagter (Rabobank), Romain Bardet and Julien Berard (both AG2R), Christian Salerno (Liquigas), Stefano Locatelli (Colnago), Nicki Sorensen (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) and Steve Morabito (BMC) – formed the early break after around 60km, although they never built too much of an advantage.

The group fell apart and were down to just Bardet, Losado, Salerno and Morabito with 88km remaining. Bardet was the last to be caught having enjoyed [not sure that’s the right word in those weather conditions – Ed] a solo ride over the summit of the feared Muro di Sormano, only to be caught on the Ghisallo. A number of riders unfortunately came to grief on the treacherous descents including former world champion Alessandro Ballan (BMC) and his team leader, current world champion Philippe Gilbert, both of whom climbed off their bikes. Others fell too, including Rodriguez’s wing man Dani Moreno and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale), but they remounted and returned to the fray.

Multiple attacks – war of attrition

With everyone back in the rapidly dwindling field, Kevin De Weert (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) attacked, not once but twice and enjoyed a spell out front on his lonesome. He too took a tumble on the descent of the Ghisallo and was caught although he hadn’t been given  much leeway by the Katusha-directed peloton, now down to 30 or so riders, and including all of the main contenders bar Gilbert.

Rui Costa (Movistar) was next to go on the offensive only to be followed by Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi) but the latter sat up once the peloton was within sniffing distance, and all too soon they were both back in the pack before the final climb. Now it was the turn of Sky and Lampre to try to control what was left of the field. Defending champion Oliver Zaugg (BMC) was on the shoulder of Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank), the rider many, including Gilbert, had cited as the man to watch after his recent victory in Milano-Torino.

Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil-DCM), no doubt keen to give the team’s special edition jersey in the traditional duck egg-blue of Bianchi a bit of a showing was next to try his hand in the company of Alexandr Kolobnev (Katusha) and Gorka Verdugo (Euskaltel-Euskadi) on the early slopes of the final climb but they were brought back by Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp).

Bianchi sweater to commemorate Fausto Coppi’s five victories (image courtesy of Vacansoleil-DCM)

Many thought the final climb might prove too short and insufficiently steep to launch a winning attack. Exactly what happened was literally shrouded in mist but Rodriguez was first off the mountain and rapidly built an unassailable lead, despite the deluge. Or indeed because of it, as the treacherous conditions effectively negated the numerical superiority of his pursuers. The initial chasing group of Uran, his Sky teammate Sergio Henao, Contador and Nairo Quintano (Movistar) swelled as they reached the foot of the descent and although they combined their efforts it just wasn’t enough to bring back Rodriguez. Indeed, Purito had just enough time in hand to celebrate his win by exuberantly throwing his water bottle over his head.

Il Lombardia podium (l-r): Samuel Sanchez, Joaquim Rodriguez, Rigoberto Uran (image courtesy of Euskaltel-Euskadi)

A few bons mots from the victor

After the race, Rodriguez confirmed:

I have to thank Igor Makarov and ITERA for putting me in the best condition to have this perfect season. This is the most important triumph of my whole career.

Today I was feeling in great shape. In fact I made my teammates work during all the crucial moments of the race. When I saw that all my rivals were tired and I felt so great, I realised I had a great chance to win.

The Villa Vergano climb suited me well. I managed to make the difference. To tell the truth I thought that somebody could join me in that attack, but instead nobody could answer and that makes this victory even greater. I think I was one of the favourite riders from the beginning. I was fighting for a double goal: to win this prestigious competition and to take the lead of UCI WorldTour ranking, and I managed to, so I’m really happy.

I think it’s safe to assume that Rodriguez’s increased demands have been met by team management and he’ll stay with Katusha. Indeed, they would be foolish to let him go.

Closing thoughts

Yesterday Gilbert had said that he was fired up by the challenge and thoughts of being in the rainbow jersey. Sadly that enthusiasm was extinguished by a fall in the appalling weather conditions, but I don’t think they were that much worse than 2010 when he last won here.

However, he’d rather tempted fate I feel by claiming that he wasn’t put off by the forecasts of bad weather:

It is very good for me as I am very good in the descents, and I have the best tyres in the market. Continentals will help me tomorrow. [Clearly not! – Ed.] The legs also. But we have a strong team. I still had a good week of training behind me. I think the condition will still be there. We will see in the final.

Crucially, Gilbert admitted that he had no idea what the gruelling Muro di Sormano was like and had instead watched the final two hours of last year’s race yesterday as a form of reconnaissance, relying on the guidance of his team mates for today’s unknown.

By contrast, Contador had done some pre-race reconnaissance on Thursday – and Rodriguez probably did too – which, in the weather conditions, would have been helpful in getting a feel for the major difficulties, in this case the descents rather than the climbs:

Interestingly, there were seven Colombians in the leading group capping off a truly splendid season for them which will see a number, such as the baby-faced Carlos Betancur (Acqua & Sapone), move up to WorldTour teams. They are without a doubt, this year’s must-have.


1. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) 6:36:27

2. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +0:09

3. Rigoberto (Sky) same time

4. Mauro Santambrogio (BMC) s/t

5. Sergio Henao (Sky) s/t

6. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) s/t

7. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) s/t

8. Oliver Zaugg (RadioShack-Nissan) s/t

9. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) s/t

10. Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) s/t

Links: Preview, Official race website

Il Lombardia preview

The one-day race formerly known as the Giro di Lombardia used to be the last monument of the cycling calendar in mid-October and was affectionately called the ‘race of the falling leaves’. Moved to late September this year, the falling leaves may be relatively few in number this time around but the race  remains a key milestone on the UCI WorldTour. It was first held in 1905 and called Milan-Milan. [So good they named it twice? – Ed] That was changed in 1907 to Giro di Lombardia but the race’s organisers (RCS Sports) have decided that there’s only one Giro – the Giro d’Italia – and have renamed it Il Lombardia.

What sort of race is it?

The race is run largely around the towns of Milan, Como, Varese and Bergamo, although the 2004 edition started in Mendrisio in Switzerland. One constant has been the Madonna del Ghisallo climb that typically appears in the latter part of the race and on which there’s a shrine dedicated to cyclists.

Fausto Coppi holds the record with five wins while Frenchman Henri Pelissier and Irishman Sean Kelly have thrice been victorious. In recent years a number of riders – Paolo Bettini, Michele Bartoli, Damiano Cunego and Philippe Gilbert – have all won back-to-back titles which may augur well for the defending champion, RadioShack-Nissan’s Oliver Zaugg.

2007: Damiano Cunego (Lampre)

2008: Damiano Cunego (Lampre)

2009: Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto)

20010: Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto)

2011: Oliver Zaugg (Leopard Trek)

What happened last year?

Lombardia 2011 podium l to r Martin, Zaugg, Rodriguez (image courtesy of official race website)

Oliver Zaugg (Leopard-Trek) surprised everyone – himself included – when he took off with around 10km to go on the final tricky climb and managed to stay away to solo to victory across the finish line. Zaugg had been pursued by a few small chasing groups from which fellow Brummie Dan Martin (Garmin-Cervelo) emerged as runner-up [Zaugg’s not a fellow Brummie, Sheree is – Ed], while pocket-rocket Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) followed him home for third place. Defending champion Philippe Gilbert, much to everyone’s surprise after his annus mirabilis,  failed to win the 241km race for a third consecutive time, coming in 15 seconds down in eighth place.

Vincenzo Nibali had been in the driving seat after leaving everyone for dead on the climb to the Madonna del Ghisallo, 52km from the finish. But he imploded 35km later under the pressure applied by Sky, working for Rigoberto Uran who was himself unable to follow the attack of Nibali’s teammate Ivan Basso. Nonetheless, Zaugg caught everyone off guard with his well-timed attack on the Villa Vergano.

1.. Oliver Zaugg (Leopard-Trek) 6:20:02

2. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervelo) +0:08

3. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) same time

4. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

5. Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre-ISD) s/t

6. Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago-CSF Inox) s/t

7. Giovanni Visconti (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) +0:15

8. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) s/t

9. Carlos Betancur (Acqua & Sapone) s/t

10. Riccardo Chiarini (Androni Giocattoli) s/t

This year’s race

At the request of many fans, this year’s parcours includes the Sormano Wall – the clue’s in the name – which made its last appearance in the 1962 edition. The 251km route starts in Bergamo to celebrate Felice Gimondi’s 70th birthday and takes a meandering, winding route to conclude in Lecco.

The first 75km is largely flat as it heads east from Bergamo before turning back towards Brianza and the first climb of the day, the Valico di Valcava and its 14 hairpin bends – 11.65km at an average of 8% – followed by a fast technical descent.

Next there’s the shortish Colle Brianza climb after 134km and then, just under 20km later, the Muro di Sormano. The first part of the climb averages a taxing 6.6% but the gradient increases substantially in the last 1.9km, with an average of 15.8% and sections at a leg-juddering 27%. If that wasn’t enough, the climb is narrow with several sharp hairpins.

Thereafter, the route follows the southern shores of Lake Como before climbing the iconic Madonna del Ghisallo from Bellagio – 8.6km at an average of 6.2%. Riders pass by the small chapel and museum at the top before swooping down to the finish in Lecco via Villa Vergano -3.25km at an average of 7.4% – which is where this year’s victor, like last year, might just launch his winning attack.

Who to watch

Favourites for victory should be those in the mix at last Sunday’s World Championships road race, including new world champion  Philippe Gilbert (BMC) who will give the rainbow jersey its maiden outing.

Defending champion Zaugg will wear number one and lead RadioShack-Nissan for the last time before he moves to Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank to support team leader and Vuelta a Espana winner Alberto Contador who, having animated the men’s road race in Valkenburg, went on to win Milano-Torino on Wednesday and will be seeking to become the first ever Spanish winner of the race. By the same token, we should keep a close eye on Colombian climbing sensation Rigoberto Uran (Sky) who won Thursday’s Gran Piemonte.

Last year’s podium finishers Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) will look to go one or two better this year. Equally, we might expect Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale), Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) and Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) to be in with a shout, or maybe Samu Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) will garner some much needed points for our friends in orange. Equally, we might have a repeat of last year with a totally unexpected win from someone who’s looking for a contract for next season.

Il Lombardia takes place on Saturday 29th September. Live coverage will be shown by Eurosport in the UK. For other live coverage check

Link: Official race website