Monday, 18 October 2010

Tour Of Lombardy 2010

Ever since seeing Sean Kelly battling with Greg Lemond along the shores of Lake Como in the 80's I've loved watching the Tour of Lombardy. The rolling, twisting roads, lined with palatial villas, and the autumnal light make this one of the seasons most dramatic events. This year I finally managed to get there in person for a day of madcap driving on, literally, the highways and byways of Lombardy chasing the peleton and sitting in race created traffic jams.

Known as the "Race of the Falling Leaves" this October race always features the short (believe me, that's a relative term!), sharp, and very beautiful, hills around this famous lake in Northern Italy, although the start and finish often move around the region. In recent years it has started in Como, Cantu, Mendrisio (SUI), Varese and Milan and has finished in Como, Milan, Monza and Bergamo, but no matter which towns are used, it's always a tough end-of-season battle and caps off one riders season in triumph.

That rider is rarely an unworthy victor. Since Kelly's three wins, in 1983, 1985 and 1991, winners have included Tony Rominger, Laurent Jalabert, Damiano Cunego, Paulo Bettini and, last year, Phillipe Gilbert.

The 2010 race started at the shiny, new Lombardy Regional Council building in central Milan. The riders then headed north to do a lap of the inverted Y shaped Lake Como, with some tough detours into the surrounding hills punctuating the route. The most famous hill has always been the climb to the sanctuary of Madonna Del Ghissalo, Patron Saint of Cyclists, but this year also featured the ascents of the Intelvi, the Colle di Ballisio, the brutally steep Colma di Sormano and a final sting with the inclusion of the steep San Fermo di Battaglia with just 5km to go.

Our day started south of Milan, in the suburban village of Melegnano, home to some long standing family friends, our hosts for the weekend. Following their directions we made our way to a residential street near the start and parked the car, ready to hit the road before the race start.

We wandered down to the area marked on our map as the bus parking area to find a still empty street. We were too keen! So we walked on to the Start area, mooched some freebie caps and compared notes for the day with the other Irish spectators and press we bumped into. Photographer Eoin Clarke even offered to take us in his accredited car but we had to decline that. We would have had trouble getting back to, and finding, our own hire car in Milan afterwards.

We walked back to the bus area to find most teams were set up by now. Bikes were lined up alongside team cars and buses, ready for the riders to emerge from their inner sanctums and move off. Having been at the more formal Worlds and Tour De France in the past, the informality of this scene was great. Team directors, like Sky's Sean Yates and Garmin's Jonathan Vaughters, hung about chatting to all comers while their staff busied themselves readying musettes and spare bikes. Riders talked to fans and press and then moved off one by one to sign on.

Dan Martins bike ready to roll

I had offered the guys at Bike Pure that I would spread their message if I could so I was delighted that an approach to Vaughters was well received. He not only put on the wristband, but took a few more to give away too. This is a man who stands up to be counted!

Garmin DS Jonathan Vaughters supporting Bike Pure

My travelling companion Stephen O'Shea tried very hard, without success, to track down his "namesake", Cofidis rider, Stephane Augé. Instead we joined the small group of Irish "fans" waiting for one of the race favourites, Dan Martin, to climb from the Garmin bus. When he did he looked very relaxed. He had plenty of time to chat with us and sign a jersey for some young, female fans. I asked him about the sticker "protest" taking place, which would see some teams wearing a sticker saying "I ride with my heart" in response to comments by an elderley Italian Olympic official that all riders are doping. Dan had no sticker and was quick to dismiss the idea, pointing out for one thing that the man has apologised. I tend to agree with him that the protest was a joke. Some of those making the biggest fuss may not be so squeaky clean themselves! From what I saw, no more than half of the teams looked to be sporting the sticker.

"Io corro con il cuoro" (I ride with my heart")

Dan looks very relaxed before one of his potentially biggest days on a bike.

Edvald Boassen Hagen (Nor), another young rider hoping to shake up the old guard.

This was when we made the biggest mistake of the day. Instead of heading out the road ahead of the race, the temptation to follow the riders to the start was too much. The informality allowed us to mingle with the stars making it hard to drag ourselves away.

Cadel Evans (Aus) looked relaxed without his rainbow jersey.
Three times World Champion, Oscar Freire (Spa)
Olympic Champion, Samuel Sanchez (Spa), looks lost!

When we did finally get to the car, the race had already left and we found ourselves mired in the resulting traffic. I'd never driven in Italy before but it wasn't long before I was copying the locals and taking every opportunity to cut in front, cut across, switch lane, in fact anything to get ahead faster.

One of the keys to following a race like Lombardy is to have your satnav preset with the points where you want to watch the race. Then, in theory, you only have to press the button and the nice lady will tell you the way to go. The problem is she's not so good on unforeseen blockages, like roadworks! Our plan to shoot up the motorway and get ahead of the peloton was thwarted by a blocked entry ramp, forcing us back onto the race route, behind the cavalcade. By the time we got on to the motorway, and off again, just before the Swiss border at Chiasso, the traffic jam in front of us made it pretty clear we'd not gotten the jump on them.

But this wasn't the end of the world. All it meant was we wouldn't get to the point where the race leaves the lake for the Intelvi climb on time. But we were still on schedule for the most important milestone in our day. We needed to catch the ferry from the point where the race rejoined the lakeshore at Menaggio across to Varenna on the far side. That would, and did, allow us to get to the climb above Bellano (famous for the fact George Clooney has a house there!) well before the road closed.

We parked about halfway up, right beside the entry point to another motorway, part of the plan to get us to the next point on time. Leaving the car we had plenty of time to wander down a couple of hairpins, through the narrow cobbled alleys of a sleepy hamlet. The day was turning damp and grey but it wasn't too bad yet and it was nice to stretch our legs, although the absence of a café for a quick espresso was a bit disappointing.

A grey day above Lake Como

Before too long race vehicles started to appear below, snaking their way up to where we were. A tannoy car announced that there was a break of 5 riders away with a gap of 8 minutes. A few minutes more we could see flashing lights coming down the lake from the north just as not one, but two, trains forced a level crossing to close the route. We had a birds eye view of a growing backlog of pre-race cars and could imaging the swearing that was going on in them as the trains trundled past. Just in time the crossing opened and the break rounded the corner below us. The riders were up to us in no time, talking among themselves. It looked to me like they were discussing whether or not to drop one of their number who was starting to struggle.

Mauro De Dalpo (Lampre), Diego Caccia (ISD) and
Kjeil Carlstrom (Sky) among the leading group.
The break consisted of Tony Gallopin (Cofidis), Gianluca Mirenda (ISD-Neri), Diego Caccia (ISD-Neri), Mauro Da Dalto (Lampre-Farnese Vini), Kjeil Carlström (Team Sky) and Michael Albasini (HTC-Columbia). Gallopin was clearly suffering while Carlström had torn shorts and some nasty road rash. It was pretty clear these guys weren't going to be getting the glory today, even at that early stage.

One of the interesting things about seeing a race up close is to watch what the support people are doing. I was amused to see a very well wrapped up motorbike photographer hop off his bike and start clambering up into someone's garden. Anything for the perfect shot! Meanwhile his pilot took the opportunity to get his sandwich out and enjoyed a leisurely lunch at the roadside.

Not long after, the peloton came up from below, led by the Omega Pharma Lotto team of race favourite Gilbert. He clearly fancied his chances of two in a row. Best of all Dan Martin was looking comfortable in the main bunch.

Gilbert's boys lead the bunch
Dan (left) is well wrapped up against the conditions. 
The peloton goes on it's way. Spot the photographer in the garden.

Once they'd gone past, we legged it back up the hill to the car and fought our way out through the traffic onto the motorway. I'm not sure what the top speed of a Fiat Panda is but we must have been testing it through the chain of tunnels that brought us to Lecco and our next waypoint.

The weather was drawing in now and the break was looking the worse for wear by the time they passed over the bridge where we were.

Michael Albasini leads the remains of the break through Lecco
The break is splitting at this point
Tony Gallopin has had enough and waits for the bunch

As the bunch passed through we struggled to pick out Dan Martin. Wet days are not the best for spotting riders as they all wear similar rain gear over their distinctive jerseys. Why rain capes can't match team kit I don't know. Neither of us saw Dan and, more worryingly, the Garmin car seemed to be missing too. The pack had been split to pieces so we waited for most of them to go through but there was no sign of Garmin. Eventually we had to get back on the road if we were going to get to Como for the finish so we had no idea if Dan was still in the hunt or not, but it didn't look good.

A rain cape clad peloton rolls through Lecco.
Sky's Bradley Wiggins (left) was obviously having a bad day, but where was
Dan Martin?

About halfway to Como we spotted a load of team cars coming from a junction to the right. That road was a direct route from the last feeding station so these were the staff heading to the finish. I have to admit it was fun racing along sandwiched between the HTC-Columbia and the Caisse D'Epargne cars! At least we didn't need to worry about the satnav.

By the time we parked in Como the rain was pelting down. We were well soaked as we followed the sound of the announcers to find the finish, so could only imagine how it was for the riders. We got to the big screen as the tannoy was reading out the names of the riders still in contention. Gilbert was still there, as were Sanchez, Nibali, Scarponi et al but there was no mention of Mar-teen. Not good!

The race came through Como near the finish are before heading out again to take in the San Fermo Di Battaglia climb. As they sped down into the town in now torrential rain Gilbert was out in front with Scarponi riding away from a group containing Nibali. The rain was so bad my heart was in my mouth waiting for someone, rider or vehicle, to lose it but thankfully no-one did.

video


A sea of umbrellas watching the race on the big screen

Back at the finish, we got a spot just after the line and settled down to watch the finale unfold on the big screen. Of course, Gilbert asserted his dominance by simply riding away from Scarponi and, after a nail biting descent, had time to assert his number one status for the cameras before crossing the line to take two in row.

Phillipe Gilbert is congratulated by his soigneur after taking victory

Over the next few minutes a procession of bedraggled riders rolled over the line, some, like Vincenzo Nibale, visibly shivering from the cold. I'll bet they were never so glad to get the final race of the season over.

Not too many were left around to see the podium presentations but for Gilbert, the sounds of the Belgian anthem marked another step in his road to becoming one of the great classics riders. Sean Kelly opened my eyes to the joys of Lombardy and, in Gilbert, I see a rider in his image. A tough, gutsy rider able to win in all conditions on just about any terrain.

From left: Michele Scarpone (2nd), Phillipe Gilbert (1st) and Pablo Lastras (3rd)

By the way, after the start my good camera packed in for the day. All shots from then on were taken on my HTC Legend phone so apologies for the poor quality of some of them.

Result:

1. Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto 6:46:32
2. Michele Scarponi (Ita) Androni Giocattoli @ 12 secs
3. Pablo Lastras Garcia (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne @ 55 secs
4. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Team Saxo Bank @ 1 min 8 secs
DNF Daniel Martin (Irl) Garmin Transitions

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