Il Lombardia: Breaking Down a Scenic Coronation
The final major race of the season potentially gave us a preview for the next decade of pro cycling
The 'Race of the Falling Leaves,’ which tracks across the stunning landscapes surrounding Lake Como in the Lombardy region of Italy, pitted some of the world’s best riders against each other on extremely challenging terrain and delivered Tadej Pogačar to yet another defining victory. Pogačar’s flashy breakaway win over Fausto Masnada and Adam Yates in the chasing group behind was the exclamation point on an incredible season and saw him become only the fourth rider of all time to win Liège - Bastogne - Liège, the Tour de France, and Il Lombardia in the same season. Pogačar, despite being one the quickest riders in the race, wasn’t content to sit and wait and went on a bombastic solo mission after counterattacking Vincenzo Nibali with nearly 40kms left in the race. He was eventually joined by Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Masnada and while only having a tenuous gap the entire time, was able to hold off a star-studded chase group, who seemed more concerned with pulling each other to a victory than pegging back the world’s best rider. Besides confirming Pogačar’s now undisputed superstar status, Lombardia underlined that we are truly in a golden age of cycling where the best riders in the sport are duking it out for late-season Monuments.
38.3km: On the final major climb of the day, Passo di Ganda, Tiesj Benoot on DSM comes to the front to increase the pace and whittle down the surprisingly large group for his teammate Romain Bardet.
37.4km: The pace has an immediate effect, with one of the pre-race favorites Remco Evenepoel dropping out of the back of the group.
36.5km: Vincenzo Nibali puts in a seemingly futile attack, but Pogačar takes a bit of risk by investing the energy to bridge up to it. Outside of Tao Geoghegan Hart, who has already invested a ton of energy on the front, there is no immediate response from anyone else in the lead group and DQS quickly goes from controlling the race to being on the back foot.
35.2km: Pogačar uses the two other riders as a springboard for a solo attack. We can see the peloton behind in the distance, but giving the best climber in the world just a few meters of daylight is a horrible decision. The peloton might not realize it yet, but their ‘tranquillo’ riding has created a massive problem.
32.8km: DQS’ initial response is good. They have Fausto Masnada making the race hard and setting a high pace in the group while Alaphilippe sits on. If they keep this up, and keep Masnada with Alaphilippe, they will likely bring back Pogačar.
29.8km: The gap has dropped by five-second up and over the top of the climb, and Pogačar starts to slow significantly on the descent after close calls with crashes. He is extremely vulnerable if the chase group can stay together and keep the pressure on.
29.7km: Masnada, who gets sent slightly off the back after an Alaphilippe attack on the descent, reconnects with the front group and immediately attacks. With Pogačar still within striking distance at 26-seconds and their best chance of victory lying with Alaphilippe, this is a massive mistake. Getting to the front and setting a high pace would greatly increase their chances of victory since even if Masnada bridges up to Pogačar, he can’t beat the Slovenian in a sprint.
11.8km: After railing the descent and capitalizing on a few mistakes by Pogačar, Masnada makes contact and actually starts working with him despite Alaphilippe chasing behind. The team quickly tells him to stop working, but by this point, we know he is riding for his own chances, not his teammates’.
8.5km: Alaphilippe realizes that with Alejandro Valverde sitting on in the chase group, there will be no real impetus to nail back the two leaders and he starts to panic by attacking. But this simply hurts him since it breaks up the chase group and sends a valuable engine for nailing back the two leaders, Jonas Vingegaard, out the back.
4.8km: The flurry of attacking continues to de-incentivize the chase group and they struggle to keep even a reasonable pace up while they all literally stare at one another. From a game theory perspective, this makes no sense. With a short climb still to come, if they all worked equally, they could keep the gap close enough to bridge to the leaders up and over the climb and one of them would likely win. But, they simply can’t trust one another or come to an agreement, which is exactly what Pogačar was counting on when he attacked.
3.6km: On the final short pitch before the descent, Pogačar makes sure to get to the front and jack up the pace. The narrow road lined by fans means Masnada can’t get around Pogacar to attack even if he wants to, which shows he made a massive mistake by letting Pogacar get pole position into the bottom of the climb.
Finish: After successfully keeping Masnada behind him for the majority of the final kick and easily responding to an attack over the top, Pogačar wins the race after starting his sprint incredibly late to avoid giving Masnada any leadout and making sure it was a true test of quickness, not strength.
1) Pogačar gets an incredible win and polishes off a historic season that included victories at two Monuments, the Tour de France, and an Olympic medal. He is the ultimate big-game hunter in modern cycling and proved that when the chips are down at the biggest races, he is the most dangerous rider on a start line packed with world-class racers.
Before the race, one could have made a flimsy argument that Pogačar was a flash in the pan, but afterward, it is becoming difficult to see him as anything other than the world’s most dominant rider. And the scary thing for anyone else is that due to his age of 23, he is potentially only going to get better from here.
He becomes the race’s youngest winner (23y18d) since 1969 when Jean-Pierre Monsere (21y33d) took the title.
After Pogačar, only three other riders (Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault) have ever won Lombardia and the Tour in the same season and he becomes the first rider since Eddy Merckx in 1972 to win Liège - Bastogne - Liège, the Tour, and Lombardia in the same season.
The fact that Pogačar is now in the same conversation as these legends of the sport illustrates just how dominant the young Slovenian has become in just a few seasons.
2) His winning move was extremely bold, but in retrospect, it was a very clever tactic. It forced the others, who were either isolated or with limited teammates, to make a difficult, and in many ways impossible, decision to either work to pull back the lone leader at the expense of their own chances or sit in while the win rides up the road.
His willingness and ability to risk it with these long-bomb moves make him able to win nearly every race he enters.
Strangely, despite winning a good chunk of every major race he has entered, he still holds surprisingly good betting value since he is often underrated by oddsmakers.
And equally, if not more, strangely, this underestimation seems to be shared by his competitors, who, in retrospect, had no business giving him an inch, let alone 100 meters, on a sustained climb 40kms from the finish line.
3) As we’ve seen numerous times already in 2021, the early attacker wins after the chase group argues about who will work.
It’s amazing it’s taken this long, but at this point, it seems like this long-bomb strategy of attacking far from the finish once the number of teammates in a group is diminished is a trend.
And this makes sense. The attack immediately gives the advantage to the rider out front and puts everyone on the back foot, and I expect we will continue to see it used even more in seasons to come.
4) Fausto Masnada gets second place, but in reality, couldn’t have done anything to overcome Pogačar. After expertly bridging up when he realized the hesitation in the chase group was lethal, he sat on Pogacar all the way to the line and was even bold enough to test the Tour champion with an attack towards the top of the final punch with 3km-to-go.
On one hand, second place behind the strongest rider in the world in a Monument that finished in his hometown of Bergamo is perhaps his best career result so far.
But on the other hand, his initial decision to attack from the chase group and work with Pogačar once he made the juncture, potentially sunk his DQS team’s chances of winning.
This decision shows how much Masnada believes in himself, but at times, this self-belief outkicks reality and can hurt his team’s chances of victory.
5) The fact that Masnada, who was marking early breakaways for his Deceuninck - QuickStep team, was the top finisher for the powerhouse squad, raises questions about their tactics. The aim for any team in any race should be to maximize their chances of producing their best-possible result with the talent they have at the race, and that clearly wasn’t achieved by pitting Masnada against Pogačar in a two-up sprint finish.
It is somewhat inconceivable they didn’t have a rider mark Pogačar’s initial attack. This put them on the back foot immediately.
But, if we zoom out, this rider should have been Alaphilippe or no one at all. Since even when Masnada made the junction, it was a bit of a false sense of security and potentially only hurt their chances of a win with Alaphilippe.
At this point, their only real chance of a win, short of dropping Pogačar, would have been to take Alaphilippe to the finish line for a sprint, which would have required the team to stay intact and working for as long as possible. The fact that they instead seemed happy with leaving Masnada upfront with Pogacar while the current world champion dangling only a few seconds behind is mind-boggling.
6) Julian Alaphilippe got over the race’s long climbs, only to lose the race the moment his teammate attacked with 29.8km-to-go. This must be particularly frustrating for the world champion, but in retrospect, if we wanted to win the race, the first plan of action should have been to not allow Pogačar to attack unchallenged.
Had his DQS team pegged Pogačar back, Alaphilippe would have been forced to defend against attacks from Woods, Valverde, Gaudu, etc., but, the others in the group would have also had an incentive to mark those moves as well, which would have likely allowed Alaphilippe to take the race to a sprint, or at least a descending contest.
It is worth noting that while it is difficult to imagine him losing in a sprint against Valverde and Pogačar, he was handily beaten by Pogačar from a similar front group earlier this year at Liege.
But, even if the chances of Alaphilippe winning the sprint aren’t 100%, they traded that scenario for a near-zero percent chance with Masnada.
7) Remco Evenepoel was highly touted coming into the race but was dropping from the group surprisingly far from the finish line. This, of course, isn’t catastrophic, but it continues a trend of a lack of progression, and even slight regression, since his breakout 2019 season.
While he will be given a pass due to his young age of 21, it is worth noting that he is only slightly over a year younger than the race winner Pogačar.
Cycling media and teams can turn effusive praise for youthful potential into criticisms of lack of results stunning quickly.
While his DQS team will likely continue giving him the benefit of the doubt, his ability to win major races against the best competition still appears in doubt while his peers continue to improve.
8) Adam Yates gets one of the best results of his career and finishes off a week where he was on absolutely sparkling form.
However, the fact that he was still soundly beaten by Pogačar shows the uphill battle facing the Briton when it comes to getting major race wins.
9) Primoz Roglic’s form took a shocking dip since Wednesday at Milano-Torino and simply wasn’t putting out the same watts per kilogram that he had been the week prior to this race.
We get a key data point about where Roglic stands in regards to an ever-improving Pogačar over long, difficult races, which could come into play when they face off again at the 2022 Tour de France.
Yates and Roglic fought for the last podium spot and didn’t finish too far off the win, but, they were both dropped on the final pitch and quite the weakest of the riders were the weakest on the final climb. This helped them as they were able to come from behind and ambush the rest and easily blew by in the final straight.
10) Alejandro Valverde gets 5th on the day, which means he has finished in the top five at two Monuments in 2021 at the age of 41-years-old.
This is mind-blowing and a first for someone of his age, but his presence in the chase group, and refusal to work, was one of the main reasons for their failure to make any ground on the leading duo.
But, while this economical riding style can occasionally doom chase groups and allow breakaways to win, it has also delivered him countless victories throughout his career, and as we saw by his ability to beat Alaphilippe in the sprint for 5th, he may have been able to deliver a stunning result had the race come back together due to his decision to save energy while others chased.