UCI WorldTour: Contador, Valverde and Kwiatkowski to clash at Il Lombardia
Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) will fight for the number one spot in the UCI WorldTour rankings at Il Lombardia on Sunday, with every point won or lost being vital in deciding who will end the season as the world's number one ranked rider, team and nation.
Contador currently leads the individual ranking with a total of 620 points, 14 more than Valverde, who has 606, while Australia's Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) is a more distant third with 478 points.
Movistar leads the team ranking ahead of Tinkoff-Saxo, with a total of 1360 points, 174 more than their Russian rivals. While victory for Movistar is not yet mathematically confirmed, because points totals are based on the top five-ranked riders in each team, it will be extremely difficult for Tinkoff-Saxo to move past them at Il Lombardia and then the Tour of Beijing - the final race in the 2014 UCI WorldTour.
Spain has already secured success in the nations ranking, with nearly a 700-point lead on Italy and France, and the Contador-Valverde duel is likely to increase Spain's point total even further.
Il Lombardia - called the 'Race of the Falling Leaves' because it is held in the autumn-colored hills and woods of northern Lombardy - will be fascinating for multiple reasons. It will see Contador and Valverde face off and fight for points while competing with many of the biggest names in the UCI WorldTour for the race victory. New UCI World Champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) will also be in action, wearing his rainbow jersey in competition for the first time.
Contador is perhaps the favourite to end the season as the world's number one ranked rider but remains cautious.
“Everybody likes to be number one by the end of the year. But I’m already very happy with leading the individual rankings right now, especially after failing to get any points at the Tour (de France),” Contador said when he confirmed he will also ride the Tour of Beijing in pursuit of every possible UCI WorldTour point.
“But we have to keep in mind that I have very strong rivals, especially Alejandro Valverde, who’s very good at maintaining a strong shape during the season. He will be very difficult to beat.”
A new route for the 'Race of the Falling Leaves'
This year's Il Lombardia follows a new route from Como to Bergamo, with race organiser RCS Sport designing a hilly course that includes several testing climbs. Only the best, on-form riders will have a chance of victory after 256km of racing.
The 2014 route visits Bellagio on the shores of Lake Como and then climbs up to the Madonna di Ghisallo cycling chapel and museum. The riders will pass through Bergamo after 130km but then face the decisive climbs before returning to the city for the finish. The long loop in the hills includes the Colle de Pasta, the Colle Gallo, Ganda, the short but steep Bracco climb and then the Berbenno. The Ganda is 9.2km long with an average gradient of 7.3%, while the Berbenno is 5.5km long and comes just 25km from the finish in Bergamo. Both climbs will surely shake up the peloton and reveal who has the strength to win Il Lombardia.
The race will end in crescendo because of the late, final climb to Bergamo Alto, the ancient and beautiful hill-top city centre. The climb is short but especially steep, with a gradient that is never less than 10%. There is also a cobbled sector in the city centre. The descent to the finish is fast but safe before a final right turn leads into the flat finishing straight. The sprint to the line will decide the winner of Il Lombardia and perhaps even the 2014 UCI WorldTour.
Contador, Valverde and Kwiatkowski are all expected to be contenders, as is Spain's Joaquim Rodriguez, the winner of Il Lombardia in both 2012 and 2013. Rodriguez has the climbing ability and attacking punch to go clear alone on the road to Bergamo Alto and so take his third consecutive victory.
Other names to watch for include Bauke Mollema (Belkin), veterans Cadel Evans and Philippe Gilbert (BMC), talented young Italian Davide Formolo (Cannondale), 2013 World Champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), Alessandro Visconti (Movistar) and Pete Kennaugh (Team Sky).