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Joaquim Rodriguez saddles up aiming for a third consecutive title at a revamped Tour of Lombardy on Sunday as newly-crowned world champion Michal Kwiatkowski shows off his newly-acquired rainbow stripes.
Katusha climber Rodriguez has dominated the ‘Race of the Falling Leaves’ the past two years to match past winners like Belgians Philippe Gilbert and Italian pair Damiano Cunego and Paolo Bettini.
Cunego was the last rider to claim a triple in the last ‘monument’ of the one-day classics, the Italian winning his third and last title in 2008.
In the modern era no-one has won three on the trot — Fausto Coppi claimed four titles overall and three consecutively in 1946-1949 — but an ongoing duel for the World Tour title between Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador provides another subplot to Rodriguez’s bid and will surely add spice to the day’s racing.
Rodriguez finished only fifth on Wednesday when teammate Giampaolo Caruso took victory atop the Superga climb which hosts the finish line of the 193.5km Milan to Torino one-day race.
But on a positive note, Katusha had four of their riders in the top seven, Daniel Moreno (third) and Sergei Chernetski (seventh) making it an encouraging day for the Russian outfit.
Caruso capitalised when close marking between the big favourites gave the 34-year-old Italian the spur to go on and claim his first victory in over five years.
“It’s a liberating experience. But I knew I had the form,” Caruso, who was pictured pointing to the tattoos of his kids’ names on his arm as he crossed the finish line, told Gazzetta dello Sport.
“I wanted to pay tribute to my children, who I’ve seen for a total of six days in the past two months.”
Lombardy, however, is a step up in prestige and a year after pipping fellow Spaniard Alejandro Valverde to the line — barely a week after the pair’s massive blunder at the 2013 world championships allowed Portugal’s Rui Costa to race into the coveted rainbow jersey — Rodriguez looks to be the man to beat.
Former Tour de France champion Contador, however, underlined his form by finishing finished only three seconds behind Rodriguez in midweek. The Spaniard currently leads Valverde by 14 points in the World Tour Series — which culminates with the Tour of Beijing.
Kwiatkowski, Gilbert and Astana’s Fabio Aru — whose Astana team is reeling from the EPO (erythropoietin) positive doping test from Maxim Iglinskiy — are all in the mix for the win.
However the Tour of Lombardy, which has undergone several major changes over the years, is generally unkind to world champions. The last rainbow jersey to succeed was Paolo Bettini, in 2006.
“I’ve never finished it (Lombardy),” admitted Kwiatkowski after last week’s career-defining win. “I got sick last year the night before the start. So wearing this jersey, I at least have to do better than last year!”
Predicting this year’s winner, however, will be made even more difficult by yet another course change.
Bergamo, which hosted the race finish from 1995 and 2003, is back to host the finish line while the ascent of the notorious Madonna del Ghisallo climb (8.5 km long) now comes after just 58 km as opposed to much later in the race.
Indeed, there is barely any flat road in the final 100km, which features the Colle dei Pasta, the Colle Gallo, the Passo di Ganda — all of which will thin out the peloton prior to the closing, decisive kilometers.