Il Lombardia is a tough race, as beautiful as it is unpredictable. Most of its appeal lies in the countless ways in which it can be settled, be it in a small-bunch sprint, or attacking uphill/downhill, from a long distance or in the closing kilometres.
After narrating a long-distance attack, today we are having a look at another possible way of winning the Classic of the Falling Leaves: an attack in the final kilometres.
Breaking away at 70-80 kilometres out and holding off the chase from the pack, as Coppi used to do, is an extraordinary achievement – a bold idea that requires incredibly strong legs and lungs to succeed.
If you think about it, though, attacking in the final kilometres is unquestionably no less, especially in present-day cycling, where the team strategies and the increasingly even field of contenders make it all the more difficult to make a big difference.
So whenever this happens, it is a magic moment that immediately brings us back to the true nature of cycling. It’s one man alone in the lead, going all in, one shot, with everyone else behind trying to stop him.
Many riders have succeeded in doing so in recent years, for instance Vincenzo Nibali in 2015 and in 2017, Thibaut Pinot in the following edition, or Bauke Mollema and Jakob Fuglsang in 2019 and in 2020, respectively.
But maybe the most memorable achievement was that of Paolo Bettini in 2006, when he raced his second ‘Lombardia’.
The ‘Cricket’ took to the start line in the World Champion’s jersey, which he had recently won in Salzburg, but with a heavy heart from the death of his brother Sauro, just a few days earlier.
He had thought of not showing up until the day before, but he eventually decided he would race for Sauro that day.
As we shall see, he did it in an extraordinary way.
He cleared the Ghisallo in first, ahead of a group of 20 or so riders. The race then exploded along the following climb, the Civiglio, when Di Luca inconsiderately attempted to break away. It was just what Bettini had been waiting for. Using Di Luca as a launch pad, Bettini put the hammer down, catching everybody off guard and dropping all the favourites behind.
The German Wegmann, the only one to respond, painfully managed to catch up with the World Champ by the end of the descent.
However, one last effort remained before the finish: the closing ascent to San Fermo della Battaglia. That’s where the game was over.
At 6 kilometres out, Bettini stood on his pedals and kicked clear, without even looking back. The German had no choice but to give up.
The Cricket crossed the finish line in Como crying and pointing at the sky.
Every solo attack requires a special motivation, one extra reason to face the risk of failing while hunting down the glory of victory. And that day, Bettini had the strongest motivation that one could ever have.
As he told the reporters after the finish, “I was not riding alone, today”.