Sky miss the boat as Chaves just keeps getting better
- Photos by Graham Watson

Esteban Chaves is getting better and better

Il Lombardia

What a year it’s been for Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge). Back in the spring he finished second at the Giro d’Italia; an exceptional result that confirmed him as one of the new best Grand Tour riders in the peloton. Then at the Vuelta a España he achieved a similar result in even more esteemed quality, pinching a place on the podium ahead of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff).

But what marks his victory today at the Il Lombardia as being particularly special is that this time Chaves gets to celebrate on the top step of the podium.

For all the Colombian’s success this season, this is only his third victory (following a stage at the Giro, and at the Giro dell’Emilia this week that revealed his strong form), and is a result that proves he has killer instinct as well as formidable talent.

The win also caps off an extraordinary season for Orica-BikeExchange who, in addition to Chaves’ results, also won multiples sprint stages at the Vuelta, shone at the Tour de France through Adam Yates’ fourth overall and Michael Matthews’ stage win, and, most memorably of all, won Paris-Roubaix with Mathew Hayman.

The Aussie team might have doubted whether they could match that brilliant result, but Chaves has done just that in Lombardy today.

Kudos to Diego Rosa

Diego Rosa in the 2016 Il Lombardia

Diego Rosa in the 2016 Il Lombardia

As great as it is to see Chaves’ famous smile upon winning, you can’t help but feel sorry for Diego Rosa (Astana).

The Italian was only just edged out on the line, having started his sprint early to try and catch the others out, and looked like he was going to be successful until Chaves’ late charge.

>>> Peter Sagan confirmed as 2016 WorldTour champion after Il Lombardia

At several points earlier in the race, he seemed to be within moments of falling out of contention. First he bridged the gap entirely on his to the leading trio of Chaves, Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r), despite dangling just behind them for what felt like an eternity.

Then later on the final climb he again found himself a few agonising bike-lengths behind Chaves and Uran, only to again make up the difference

It was a gutsy ride, especially for a rider who had started the day in support of Fabio Aru, before it became clear he had stronger legs than his leader. Having worked so well to set up the win for Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) last year, he may want to be confirmed as outright leader for next year’s Il Lombardia – something that may influence whether or not he stays at Astana next season.

The favourites didn’t hang about

The peloton in the 2016 Il Lombardia

The peloton in the 2016 Il Lombardia

In recent years there has been a disappointing trend in high profile hilly classics like Il Lombardia of conservative racing, with riders tending to wait until very late on to commence battle.

But that wasn’t the case on Saturday. The race burst into life not on the last climb, but the fourth from last climb (Sant Antonio Abbandonato), where several big names – including eventual winner Chaves – shot off the front to form a dangerous looking group.

Usually when such early attacks go, teams in the peloton re-group and initiate a controlled chase. But again, that wasn’t the case, as riders instead opted to chase up to the attackers individually rather than as a group, until the lead group had swelled to around fifteen-or-so committed riders.

With the selection made, we might have expected those in the lead group to hold back until the final climb. But the race exploded prematurely once more with an attack from Chaves on the penultimate climb (Selvino) with 35km still to ride, taking Bardet, Uran and later Diego Rosa with him.

It was unexpected, but sure made for some thrilling racing.

A new generation of classics stars contest the win

Romain Bardet and Esteban Chaves in the 2016 Il Lombardia

Romain Bardet and Esteban Chaves in the 2016 Il Lombardia

One notable characteristic of this year’s Il Lombardia was the absence of many of the more familiar names of the hilly classics. Previous Lombardia winners Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Dan Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) and Philippe Gilbert (BMC) were barely visible, while even veteran Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) couldn’t follow the key move.

In fact, the four riders who formed the select group – Chaves, Rosa, Uran and Bardet – had not a single monument win between them, and only one podium finish (Uran at the 2012 Il Lombardia).

Excluding Uran, who at 29-years of age is probably already at his peak, these riders look set to get better and better and play a big part in the future of cycling.

25-year old Bardet and 26-year old Chaves had already demonstrated their qualities at Grand Tours, but now also look like they can be favourites also in races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège. And 27-year old Diego Rosa has enjoyed huge improvement over the past twelve months or so, and could develop into one of Italy’s star riders.

Sky miss the boat

Wouter Poels in the 2016 Il Lombardia

Wouter Poels in the 2016 Il Lombardia

Team Sky went into this race with what seemed like wealth of options –Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner Wout Poels, on-form Nicholas Roche and top climbers Mikel Nieve and Leopold König all looked capable of playing a significant part in the race.

But when the selection was made, none of their riders were present. In fact, Sky were conspicuous by their absence, as by far the biggest team not to make it into the definitive group.

Given how Poels’ victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April seemed to have finally promoted Sky to the A-list in the classics, this performance was particularly disappointing.