Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez won a rain-lashed 106th edition of the Tour of Lombardy on Saturday to become the first Spanish winner of the “Race of the Falling Leaves.”
Rodriguez, who finished on two Grand Tour podiums this year, launched a solo attack on the final climb 9km from the finish and held off a desperate chase to finish the 251km classic in triumph.
“It’s the biggest win of my life,” said Rodriguez, who started his season by winning the Fleche Wallonne semi-classic before finishing runner-up in the Giro d’Italia.
He also finished third in the Tour of Spain won by compatriot Alberto Contador, who finished ninth and among a small group that was nine seconds adrift.
“This year has been perfect, but despite winning Fleche Wallonne and my second place at the Giro I still hadn’t won a big classic,” Rodriguez added.
Fellow Spaniard Samuel Sanchez finished second ahead of Olympic silver medalist Rigoberto Uran of Colombia as a number of pre-race favorite fell out of contention in the treacherous conditions.
Rodriguez’s win came in the absence of Belgium’s former two-time winner and new world champion Philippe Gilbert, who crashed out around 80km from the finish.
Italian Vincenzo Nibali also came down on a descent shortly after and despite latching back on to the lead peloton the Liquigas leader was among those caught out when Rodriguez launched his decisive attack.
With those dangers gone, Rodriguez — a “puncher” who excels on steep climbs — launched his bid for victory on the climb to Villa Vergano, whose summit was 9.5km from the finish.
Uran, who had signaled his ambitions pre-race by winning the Giro del Piedmont midweek, admitted: “We expected Rodriguez to attack on the final climb, or else Contador. When he did we just couldn’t follow. It was a very hard race and made even worse by the rain.”
Briefly, it looked like the seven-strong chase group of Contador, Sergio Henao, Uran, Mauro Santambrogio, Nairo Quintana, Thomas Lovkvist and last year’s champion Oliver Zaugg, would reel in Rodriguez, who held a lead of just 20 seconds with 6km remaining.
However, their lack of collaboration in the closing kilometers played in the Spaniard’s favor. Zaugg, frustrated, finally countered in the closing 1.5km, but by then it was too little too late.
Rodriguez, however, had never imagined winning solo.
“Since this morning I just felt that things would go right. I saw people getting tired during the race and I was feeling good. However, I didn’t think I’d be going to the finish on my own,” he said.
“I thought I’d have to contend the sprint with [Alberto] Contador and Nibali,” he said.
His maiden Lombardy triumph means he secures the No. 1 World Tour ranking held by British Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins. He now has 692 points with Wiggins, who did not race on Saturday, now in second on 601.
In 105 previous editions, hosts Italy have dominated with 67 victories, with 12 for Belgium, 11 for France, five for Switzerland and three each for Ireland and the Netherlands.
Riders from Britain, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Russia, and now Spain, have claimed one win each.