If attacking from afar or in the final kilometres has proven unsuccessful, the only option left is to jostle for victory at the ‘Classic of the falling leaves’ in a sprint with the few ones left in the lead.
This is one of the most fascinating options, perhaps even the most fascinating one, because it has everyone – spectators and riders alike – wait with bated breath (or even breathless!) until the finish line.
Solo breakaways surely ramp up the enthusiasm, as fans follow their favourite all along, rooting for him, pushing him with their eyes, cheering him on with their voice, or hoping he will catch up with the breakaways if he has fallen behind.
However, seeing a small bunch of champs still watching each other’s moves after toiling for 230-240 kilometres, each with an ace up their sleeve, waiting for the right time in order not to waste their chance by going at it too early or too late, is a stunning scene – cycling’s narrative is at its best.
This is what happened at the 2016 Il Lombardia.
Esteban Chaves sprinted at the foot of the Selvino climb, with 35 kilometres to go, taking Romain Bardet and Rigoberto Urán with him.
With Diego Rosa joining them shortly after, the four quickly opened a large enough gap to make it clear that they were the strongest ones that day – the ones eventually battling for victory.
The climb to Bergamo Alta was the final impediment, the last chance to make a difference before a possible closing sprint. And that’s where Chaves attacked again.
As Urán and Rosa responded, Bardet threw in the towel.
It all came down to a three-man sprint, an exciting poker game.
With their ace up their sleeve, watching each other’s moves, each of them did their best to figure out when and how to play their hand, while at the same time trying not to let Bardet – who was not too far behind – back in the game.
Rosa tried to go all-in first, catching his breakaway companions by surprise with a long sprint, at over 300 meters out.
He jumped 3, 4, 5 meters forward, but never managed to open an adequate gap. Behind him, Chaves – a skilled player, despite his young age – left it to his fellow Colombian to catch up with Rosa.
At that exact moment, if Urán had been bluffing too, waiting for his compatriot to do the work instead, there was every chance that victory would go to the Astana’s rider.
Sometimes, however, you have to risk losing in order to win a race, and ultimately Chaves’s attempt proved to be a well-calculated risk.
As soon as Urán brought him back to Rosa’s wheel, Jhoan Esteban Chaves Rubio from Bogota blasted away. Taking advantage of the energy he had saved compared to his two breakaway companions, he outsprinted a worn-out Rosa in the very last meters, taking a photo-finish win.
After the line, he finally dropped his poker face and flashed one of his usual and unmistakable smiles.