The story of Italian cycling is laced in a dramatology that underpins every aspect of this sport’s prestige as the lives of Italian icons of Pantani, Cippolini, Coppi, Bartali, Campagnolo and Battaglin give such richness to the history of the sport. The legacies of these riders have not only brewed the sport’s most passionate cycling culture but also made Italy the true home for road cycling.
The story of Italian cycling over the last 8 months has been woven with the exact same level of tragedy, solidarity and pride that it always has been. However, the rival has not been a pink jersey rival, instead, it has proved to be a global pandemic.
The Giro d’Italia was originally scheduled to take place in May, starting off in Hungary
The pandemic may still be rumbling under the surface but August marks the return of UCI World Tour racing after a 100-day hiatus from our television screens following the unprecedented sequence of events triggered by the COVID-19 outbreak. Maybe in its very own redemption story, it was the race that first announced its postponement, Strade Bianche, that dropped the curtain on this once in a lifetime season of cycling that will see the peloton ride a compressed calendar like never before.
As they were the eye of the storm as COVID-19 swept through Europe, Italy will now see itself as the centre of attention for cycling as it plays host to its two monuments, Milan-San Remo and Il Lombardia, in quick succession ahead of the Tour de France’s start later this month. Italy looks set to take on its role as host once again, as well as claiming some positive news headlines following the sombre repercussions of the COVID crisis.
As the final preparations take place within the RCS race organisation, it feels like a fitting time, therefore, to discuss what these races mean for Italy in their post-COVID state and the significance of these monuments for the nation that had been hit so cruelly by this virus.
The COVID-19 Pandemic
Riders will now take precautionary measures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic
We all know about how Italy has been affected by the current global health crisis. As the first European nation to enter a state of emergency, Italy often acted as the precursor of what was to come for the world. Serving as a cautionary tale almost for many other nations, Italy became the focus of global attention during its outbreak in late February and March.
Just as the professional peloton was preparing to make their splash into Italy, the whole calendar was thrown on its head during the period of the season that would have seen Italy as the focal point of our sport. Images of a packed Piazza Del Campo and Via Roma were sorely replaced with scenes of empty Tuscan streets or with crippled hospital wards in Lombardy.
In the face of adversity, unity and solidarity always triumph. Italy proved that. Videos emerged of balcony singing and remarkable rooftop tennis during the unprecedented period of lockdown in Italy. Through the most dramatic times, a new national identity has been solidified in the country and these monument races present themselves as the first opportunity to display this to the world. Now that the nation returns to the acclaimed ‘new normal’, the likes of Milan-San Remo and Il Lombardia can bring back some normality into the new post-COVID era which Italy craves so very much.
The New Calendar
The crowds may have been few and far between at Strade Bianche, but it marked the welcomed return of the UCI WorldTour
The UCI have undoubtedly struggled to formulate a new calendar that would maximise all the race that they can. Italy usually plays as the amphitheatre for the sport during the spring as the classics of Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo alongside Tirreno-Adriatico act as the show openers for the jewel in the crown of Italian racing, the Giro d’Italia. The COVID-19 outbreak has scarred this period of the season, forcing the UCI to shuffle the calendar to place them into a feasible period.
To the upset of many Italians and fans of the Giro, the Italian races have been shelved into a more compromising place in the revised calendar.
Tirreno-Adriatico has been pigeonholed into a week that coincides with the Tour de France whilst the Giro d’Italia clashes with the cobbled classics and the beginning of La Vuelta. It is fair to see why the Italians feel hard done by looking at the new calendar. With Il Lombardia and Milan-San Remo as the sole focuses, if you exclude some smaller stage races, of our sport once again.
Also, as the global health situation still remains somewhat on a knife-edge, some riders may be wary as to whether they should race in Italy before heading to France for the Tour. Many riders may be observing the new measures to self-isolate before racing in another country. As travel restrictions fluctuate between nations, the likelihood of France tightening measures is rather high. For riders choosing between the Tour de France and Il Lombardia, it will come as a no brainer for them. Especially as riders pack their bags for the Critérium du Dauphiné and the European Championships (now scheduled to be held in Brittany), the small gap between travelling to these two nations is not long enough to perform the minimum length of self-isolation in some territories.
With redemption in the air, it feels apt to evaluate the home chances for the upcoming Italian monuments.
‘Lo Squalo’ is undeniably the greatest Italian rider of the current peloton, boasting a palmeres including four Grand Tour victories and three monuments wins already. If there is anyone with pedigree it is this man, after having taken home the trophy from both of these races. Thus, adding him onto this list is nothing short of inevitable.
Now with a new squad, Nibali faces a lot in order to reclaim the titles of La Classicisima and Il Lombardia. A whole host of new team-mates will join the Sicilian on the startline, as the COVID-19 break has taken him away from racing alongside, and importantly, familiarising himself with, his new outfit at Trek-Segafredo.
Nibali will no doubt be feeling the pressure of his nation. After his previous emphatic victories in the Italian monuments, the expectation for a solo move on the downhill will be looming on his back. Nevertheless, once the shark smells blood, the outcome is going to be a formality.
The understated Venetian is most certainly a favourite for the Italian monuments. Branded with the Italian Tricolore, Formolo will be looking to add more monument podium finishes to his silver medal from last year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Whether it be driving rain or temperatures in the late thirties, Formolo is a threat across the board, especially following his phenomenal ride at Strade Bianche.
On his Giro d’Italia debut in 2015, a 22-year-old Formolo made his mark following an impressive solo ride into La Spezia, a victory that would etch his name into the minds of fans, journalists and directeurs sportifs alike. Still to this day, he adds similar wins on undulating courses to his name, however, his name continues to remain underemphasised.
History may be in his favour. Formolo will surely be looking to repeat the feat of the aforementioned ‘Shark of Messina’ by taking a victory in Il Lombardia in the national champions’ jersey and his chances are high, especially as his team are guaranteed to send a stacked entourage for Formolo at these two races.
The reigning champion of Europe will be going into Milan-San Remo as the obvious favourite for a home victory if it comes down to a bunch sprint as it has on so many occasions. After having a string of Grand Tour stage victories in the ‘re-invigorated second chapter’ of his career has seen him become one of the most lucrative riders in the world.
Now sporting the colours of Cofidis, Viviani has not looked as sprightly as he did 12 months ago when many touted him as the best sprinter in the peloton. He hasn’t taken a World Tour sprint win since Cyclassics Hamburg last year when he was still riding for his old Deceuninck squad. Now piloted by the likes of Laporte and Consonni, Viviani faces a whole new set-up going into his first classic with Cofidis.
We know that the man in the European stripes does have the kick to still win on a profile such as Milan-San Remo. If taken right to the final straight, it would be naive not to hench your bets on Viviani. If Elia Viviani were to claim the title on Sunday, he would become the first Italian since Filippo Pozzato in 2006 to take the win from a bunch gallop.
Colbrelli has been one of the most consistent sprinters in the late 2010s, scoring top 10s across the UCI calendar. Although he has rarely finished as the victor, Colbrelli holds an enormous amount of pressure as one of Italy’s tougher sprinters coming into the proclaimed ‘sprinters’ classic’.
The man from the shores of Lago Garda looks to be gaining momentum ahead of Milan-San Remo. He left the Route d’Occitanie with a solid stage win, on a gnarly profile nonetheless, and a certain level of confidence after beating the likes of Elia Viviani to the line. Following the departure of Nibali last winter, Colbrelli now has full control of the team for the race instead of holding back for the likes of Nibali. Bahrain-McLaren does not have the most dedicated sprint train in the pack but with the likes of Mohoric and Haller starting alongside him, his chances should not be played down.