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Il Lombardia: Ed’s First Falling Leaves
Retro PEZ: This Saturday sees the 111th edition of the Giro di Lombardia, the final Classic of the season and the oldest Autmn race on the calendar. Ed Hood isn't old enough to remember the first edition in 1905, but has had a romantic relationship with the 'Race of the Falling Leaves' for a long time and casts his memory back to his first visit to the Northern Italian race in 2007.


My first memories of the Tour of Lombardia are of black and white pictures in the British ‘Cycling Weekly’ magazine of my hero, Eddy Merckx powering up unfeasibly narrow climbs with magnificent vistas across the lakes and mountains of Lombardy unfolded behind him, screamed on by fanatical ‘clubmen’ – that’s what we called them back then – who had pedaled out to the best vantage spots.

But it took me until 2007 until I actually got myself over to the last and most beautiful of the season’s Monuments.

Excuse me while I put on my rose tinted specs and show you some snaps from the album.

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The lakeside town of Como has long been associated with the race; the percorso hugs Lake Como north, dipping under the bridges over which the rich and famous sachet to their boat houses – and no doubt Riva speedboats – from their villa.

It would just be so tiresome, not to say vulgar to have to walk across the road. . .

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The countryside is fabulous; away from the lakes and mountains vineyards proliferate – a glorious place to ride your bike.

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In Lombardy cycling is part of the fabric of life, huge groups of cyclists head into and out of the lakeside towns on the weekend of Il Lombardia – as we now know it.

But even the very roads are part of the whole experience; this one is named after Gianni Motta, super cool winner of the race in 1964.

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But it’s not all sweetness and bikes in Lombardy, the graffiti testifies to that. Umberto Bossi was the main man in the Lega Nord, a political party dedicated to greater autonomy for Northern Italy.

Financial scandal has weakened them since 2007 but many from the affluent North feel that they have little in common with their countrymen down in the sleepy toe and heel of the Italian ‘boot’ far from the twin ‘power houses’ of Milano and Torino.

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Essential pre-Lombardia preparation involves scanning the Gazzetta Dello Sport for the latest news on the favorites whilst munching a panini and sipping your cappuccino.

The only problem with getting a taste for Italian cappuccino is that when you get home things are never the same again – as someone said the other day; ‘in Italy even the coffee in the gas stations is amazing!’

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And if you’re from my era, when Eddy Merckx rode for a team sponsored by legendary coffee machine manufacturers, Faema, your knees go weak when you see that hallowed badge and the outline of Milano’s Duomo – cappuccino never tasted better.

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But the race is all about mountains and lakes – of which this region has some of the most beautiful on the planet. The wooded slopes rear straight out of the blue waters – glorious.

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The Madonna del Ghisallo climb is no longer key to victory in the race, there are too many sharp ascents following it, these days. But the first time you approach the hallowed slopes it’s hard not to get goose bumps – and it’s still a tough climb by any measure.

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The views from the top are nothing short of stunning, this is looking north past the ‘cyclists monument’ over Lake Como. The climb gets its name from the Medieval Count Ghisallo who in legend was saved from bandits here by the Virgin appearing before him.

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The chapel at the top has seen them all – Coppi, Merckx, Gimondi. . .

It ‘officially’ became the ‘cyclists shrine’ in 1949 and no Lombardia would be complete if it didn’t pass this hallowed spot.

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There’s perhaps a tad too much tat inside the chapel for some tastes - but it’s hard not to be moved by the sight of former Olympic Champion Fabio Casartelli’s mangled machine from his fatal Tour de France crash.

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There’s a cycling museum atop the climb and whilst there are some nice exhibits in there, it’s let down by poor research – a bike fit for a six footer is branded as belonging to Giuseppe Saronni, for instance.

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The views in every direction take your breath away and it’s easy to see why this is one of the most visited and hallowed spots in the cycling firmament. But we’re here to see a race. . .

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Daniel Nardello was with LPR for this Lombardia with his best days of winning Tour stages and finishing in the top 10 of the Grand Boucle well behind him.

But as a ‘Big’ he knew he had to put on a show and can’t be off the back on the Ghisallo – if the legs aren’t there then you slip into a team car on a quiet stretch or ease discretely off the percorso and take the flat roads back to Como.

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If Nardello’s career was running down then Steve Cummings hadn’t even started, in 2007 he was a Disco domestique hurting up the Ghisallo – albeit one highly recommended by Alberto Contador; ‘I’d have him in my team any day!’

Two years with Barloworld followed then spells with Sky and BMC but now he’s allowed to ‘do his own thing’ with Dimension Data. And here we are a decade later with the big man from England’s Wirral Peninsula rampant with stage wins in Tirreno, the Basque Country, Dauphine and Tour – not to mention the GC in the Tour of Britain.

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Whilst the ‘Bigs’ weren’t full gas on the climb, some of the lesser lights were deep into the red and you just knew that they’d be taking the flattest route back to Como and a shower off the Ghisallo.

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Paolo Bettini had won the race in 2005 and 2006 but 2007 wasn’t his year and his face on the Ghisallo told its own story and there was to be no hat trick for ‘The Cricket.’

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Winner on the day was ‘Little Prince,’ Damiano Cunego, taking his second of three wins in the race – he’d also won in 2004 and would do so again in 2008 - albeit he wasn’t cruising up the Ghisallo.

He beat Riccardo Ricco – yes, The Cobra himself – and the still with us and still competitive Sammy Sanchez. Cunego’s crown has slipped a little since those heady days but he’s still well liked by the Tifosi and one of the sport’s ‘nice guys.’

If you’re of the ‘Cycling Bucket List’ mentality then write down ‘Lombardia’ somewhere near the top – but it’s not my fault if you get addicted to grappa and spend the rest of your life moaning about coffee. . .

# You can read Ed's 2016 Il Lombardia race preview HERE, the race report will up on PEZ soon after the race finish on Saturday. #


The 2007 Giro di Lombardia





It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he's covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,200 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself - many years and kilograms ago - and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.

 

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