The Race of Falling Leaves

More commonly known as Il Lombardia. This is the final World Tour race of the year, and is known for its beautiful fall weather as well as for being quite brutal!
As the 5th and final monument race of the year, Lombardia traverses the Bergamo to Lake Como region of Italy. Passing through ‘falling leaves’ while winding its way over steep climbs for 240 km. Looking to finish the season out on a high with Lotto NL Jumbo before the World Championships, I was very motivated. Robert and I flew to Italy 3 days early to check out the finale…it was a special edition of the race celebrating its 110th birthday so it was going to be an unordinary difficult parkour in this edition. I always love going to Italy. It is a special place for cycling. The traveled history of racing and famous champions is still tightly wound into the DNA that is Italy. Cycling is not an activity or a hobby there, it’s a lifestyle! After flying into Bergamo from Girona, we went for a short ride to spin out the legs post travel before beginning our stereotypical pasta carbo loading at dinner! The next day we headed out to the course to preview. We started at about 120 kilometers to go with the car and started to drive on the route at the bottom of the first big climb of the race, the Passo di Valcava. Ending at 1340m high, the Valcava climbs for 12 kilometers and has a section of 18% for over 1 kilometer near the top. Although this climb was far out from the finish, we knew it would begin the race finale.
The Valcava was the first of 5 climbs that the race traversed before finishing in Bergamo. As we drove up we quickly became tourists, stopping for pictures every corner, shortly forgetting why we were driving the route before refocusing onto the task at hand. It is always nice to preview a race course so that you know what is coming, but it is also fun to be able to see the surrounding scenery while you are relaxed. It’s much harder to enjoy the breathtaking views when you are already gasping for air! After ascending and descending the Valcava by car…we arrived in a small town between in the valley between the climbs where we parked the car to continue the rest of the parkour by bike. Part of what makes Lombardia so difficult is its lack of flat terrain. As soon as you descend a climb, within 2-3 kilometers you are at the base of the next mountain. This, combined with snake-like and mentally taxing Italian descents will drain even the toughest riders.
As we jumped on to our bikes to ride the final 80 kilometers to Bergamo, we were immediately met by the next climb. For the next 3 hours we shared a nice mix of riding, taking pictures and conversation. Italy was showing off with a gorgeous sunny day. Any direction that you pointed the camera you would find a good picture. As we finished the ride…we felt like we knew the course, but that wasn’t going to make it any easier on Sunday! The next day we woke up to rain…and it wasn’t warm, we got out for a short spin before calling it a day and heading to meet the team. The team roster for Lombardia: Robert Gesink Enrico Bataglin Bram Tankink Koen Bouwman Bert-Jan Lindeman Alexey Vermeulen Wilco Kelderman Paul Martens
We were led by Robert Gesink. After a strong Vuelta, Robert had trained hard to stay in shape and he was ready to try for another top 10. My goal for myself was to make it as far as I could with Robert to help him in the finale. I was in great form going into the World Championships and I was motivated for a result in the last monument of the year. As we drove to the start the weather was wet, but not raining. It was a long and tight drive through the small streets of Italy with all the big buses. At the start the Italian fans were lining the streets…ready for a race exciting race! We rode over through the crowded streets to the podium for team presentation. As we signed in, the pre-race jitters began to sit in as well. I rode back to the bus for a final coffee before heading to the start. The race started with a 4 km neutral…through the slick cobbled streets of Lake Como. Before the neutral had ended the slick roads had already claimed one casualty. The race started hard and fast. The way out of town was slightly up on big roads for the first 40 km which made for a hectic and chaotic fight for the breakaway. The breakaway finally went away, but they didn’t get any chance to sit up, we relaxed for maybe 15 minutes before the chase began. We went over an uncategorized climb that had a steep, technical descent. This split the field up into many pieces as the race tore down the mountain towards the first major climb of the day, the Madonna del Ghisallo. As we sprinted into the bottom of the Ghisallo, my group which had been split off the back was just making contact again. I wasn’t happy to be chasing this early in the race, but I was also surrounded by capable riders, such as Uran, Van Avermaet and Wico, so I tried to relax and conserve for the fight on the rapidly approaching Ghisallo. The Ghisallo is 8km long, steep and is the first point in the race where riders start to crack under the pressure. It is 60 km into the race, but at that point there are still over 200 km to go.
The bottom of the climb was violent. After chasing right into it, there was no chance to catch my breath. I took one big inhale and went for it. Being as far back as I was would be dangerous as riders fell off the pace in front of me, so I worked hard to move up on the climb. About 12 minutes into the climb the pace relaxed and I was able to finally breathe somewhat normally for a couple minutes. We crested the top of the Ghisallo after 8 kilometers of climbing and followed its steep and technical descent to the next valley. We then followed the valley until the final flurry of climbs would set off the finale beginning with the Passo di Valcava. After passing the first big test that Lombardia had to offer, I was motivated to try and help Robert out as much as possible. Even though I had been in bad position, I had fixed it and I knew I would need to be better on the next and longest climb of the race, the Valcava. The fight into the bottom of the Valcava was tough. Taking place on Italy’s winding roads, I focused on staying with Robert and Bert-Jan as it is always easier as a team. I got split off of their wheels a couple times, but I always found my way back and happily started the Valcava in decent position. The climb, as I said above has constant pitches of 18%. Luckily we had smaller inner chain rings to accommodate this. I rode strongly for the first bit of the climb. I was hurting, but I believed I could make it. As we entered the steep section of the climb with about 5 km to go, I got a little more confident. I was here, with the last 60 riders in a World Tour – Monument race! I just kept fighting, but started to falter with about 2 km to go on the climb.
As I started the descent, I was still in the caravan of cars behind the main peloton, so I kept hope, but alas as I entered the small valley before the next climb it became apparent that I was not coming back. I kept fighting to make it too a good group, but there weren’t many. Eventually Jens Keukeleire caught me and we rode a good pace over the next climbs. Unfortunately, at the top of the second to last climb we were forced to stop the race by the organizers and police. It was a hard moment for me. I had really worked hard and hoped to finish this beautiful, terrible, epic race…but as everyone says, there is always next year. As we got into the cars, Jens told me about his team missing the start and having to chase during the neutral start to catch on just as we began the race! Poor Robert Power, who was set to start his first ever world tour race was caught on the toilet and never even caught back to the peloton! I guess at the end of the day its all about how you see it…my day wasn’t that bad after all. As I got back to the bus and caught up with everyone, only Robert had managed to finish, but he flew the Lotto flag well, coming in 7th place. With the race in the books, Robert and I talked over the race, and the season as we flew back to Girona. Although disappointed, I immediately refocused on to the World Championships and tried to harness the poor result to motivate myself. Awesome pictures taken by Les Morales! Check him out here! www.lesmophoto.com facebook.com/lesmoralesphotography

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