Holly Blades - Il Lombardia

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Il Mondiale d'Autumno, Classica delle foglie morte, the Autumn Classic: Most nicknames of Il Lombardia point to the race's important place as the concluding monument of the season. A kind of last hurrah, a final chance to take the podium, a chance to prove yourself – which is kind of how the race started.

Imagine there was a cycling rivalry that you loved, maybe Coppi and Bartali, or Anquetil and Poulidor, or, erm, Armstrong and Ullrich... And imagine that the last time they met, it hadn't been the result you hoped for. Oh, and imagine you're actually a pretty well established journalist for the biggest sports newspaper in your country. What do you do? You create a rematch obviously.

Tullo Morgagni, who would later go on to create a couple of races you might have heard of called the Milan-San Remo and the Giro d'Italia, saw Giovanni Cuniolo trounce Pierino Albini in the short lived Italian King's Cup and wanted to give Albini a chance for revenge. So, his newspaper Gazetta dello Sport (yes, that one with the pink paper), organised a “rematch” called Milano-Milano on 12th November 1905.

A hugely popular event with the spectators, neither Albini or Cuniolo would go on to win the race – that honour would fall to The Red Devil, Giovanni Gerbi, so called because of his red jersey and devil may care attitude. However, Cuniolo - in an early example of antiphrasis (and yes, it took me ages to find that word) known as Manini (tiny hands) because of his enormous hands - would, four years later, win the 1909 edition of the Giro di Lombardia, as it was now called. The same year he won the Giro d'Italia. So maybe that Italian King's Cup result wasn't that undeserved after all... Or maybe massive hands are just a cycling advantage.

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Rivalry and high tempers have permeated Il Lombardia's history since 1905. In 1956 Fausto Coppi led a breakaway which fellow Italian Fiorenzo Magni missed. As Magni dropped back, a car passed him and Coppi's infamous mistress Giulia Occhini sneered at him from the back seat. This spurred Magni on into furious pursuit of the break and, catching them in the final few metres, he argued openly with Coppi. That argument caused them to lose concentration, and the race itself, with Andre Darrigade claiming victory – but I guess in a way, the presence of Occhini served Magni well, as rather than finish minutes behind, he podiumed (I still argue that's a word) and, more importantly in the terms of rivalry, Coppi never won his sixth Giro di Lombardia.

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Following his disqualification in 1973, Eddie Merckx was determined to win a third Giro di Lombardia in 1974 fair and square but fellow Belgian Roger de Vlaeminck attacked early in the race, a move which forced Merckx's Molteni team to chase. Never intending to go solo, De Vlaeminck stopped and actually hid behind some bushes, letting the peloton pass. He then rode back up to the front and casually asked a now discombobulated Merckx “Who are we chasing?” Once again the passion and desire for revenge, or at least justice, had gotten the better of the day's favourite and Merckx only managed second place behind the cheekily on form De Vlaeminck.

It's not all toe-straps at dawn though, as the most famous climb in Il Lombardia is a site of sanctuary and peace, the home of the shrine of Madonna del Ghisallo. The mountain, after which the church is named, was allegedly the site of an apparition of the Virgin Mary which came to the Medieval Count Ghisallo whilst he was being attacked by robbers. He ran towards the apparition and was saved. I don't know, maybe it beat them off with its halo and harp or something, but the point is that the Madonna del Ghisallo became a patron saint of travellers in the area.

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When the mountain became a regular appearance in bike races such as the Giro di Lombardia and occasionally the Giro d'Italia, a local priest suggested that Madonna del Ghisallo should be the patron saint of cyclists. It was okayed by Pope Pius XII at the 1949 Giro d'Italia (I believe “okayed” is the technical term) and the church now contains a small cycling shrine with an eternal flame to those cyclists we have lost, as well as jerseys and bikes from big names throughout the years, perhaps most solemnly, the crumpled bike that local boy Fabio Casartelli was riding the day he died in the 1995 Tour de France.

And, just behind the shrine is now a fully fledged Cycling Museum, created by three times Giro d'Italia and three times Tour of Flanders winner Fiorenzo Magni before his death in 2012. Remember him? The third placer to Coppi after his valiant chase to the breakaway in 1956? Which, like the changing of the seasons, like the spirals of those dead leaves falling from the Autumnal trees, brings us round in a serendipitous almost kind of full semi circle, nearly. The end.


Read more from Holly Blades in Conquista Issue 12 - Available Now

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