The final one-day Classic of the season takes place on Sunday – the Giro di Lombardia.
Il Lombardia, first raced in 1905, is older than the Giro d’Italia itself and, with only the Tour of Beijing to follow, offers some riders their final chance of racking up UCI WorldTour points.
After a washed-out world championship road race in Florence, which saw many riders abandon, including the entire Great Britain squad, there will be no shortage of riders returning to Italy with a point to prove ahead of the winter break.
Tour de France champion Chris Froome (Team Sky) currently heads the individual UCI standings and will race in Lombardy, but the punishing 242km parcours from Bergamo to Lecco has sprung surprises before and could do so again.
It was success in the ‘classic of the falling leaves’ which lifted Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) to the top of the WorldTour rankings last year, and with 80 points separating him and Froome he could repeat that feat again this time out.
Before either Purito or Froome can start eyeing up top spot however, there is the mountainous route to negotiate so let’s take a look at what is in store.
With a lumpy 242km parcours containing five tough climbs – including the infamous, leg-screamer up Muro di Sormano – the Giro di Lombardia is anything but a quiet easing into the winter.
Riders head east out of Bergamo into the valley and follow undulating roads to the 9.6km climb of Valcava which, with an average gradient of 9 per cent and a steepest section at 17 per cent, will provide an early test of the legs.
The narrow road, with 14 bends, makes for a tricky climb – a classic of Il Lombardia – and it is immediately followed by a fast, technical descent towards Costa Valle Imagna.
Having crossed Colle Brianza and passed through the picturesque Valassina region, the riders then quite literally hit the wall – the Sormano Wall to be exact.
Reinstated last year after a 50-year absence from the route, the climb is one of the steepest in Lombardy – with Rodriguez’s ascent in little more than a record nine minutes setting him up for victory last time out.
Although just two kilometres in length, and on a recently-repaired road, the very steep, narrow climb, with sharp bends and gradients in excess of 25 per cent, will punish the peloton further.
An almost flat summit then makes way for a highly technical, twisting descent towards Nesso onto the lake road, where riders will then tackle the slightly more sedate, though no less demanding, 14 per cent slopes of the Ghisallo.
With the roads now wider, the fast, steep and often very straight descent will test the riders downhill speeds before they hit an uphill section to Ello.
Peaking with nine kilometres to go, the descent will send the riders to the finish line, where a quickfire left and then right turn must be negotiated before the leaders will sprint down the 120m-long home straight on a wide road.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha): The Spaniard ensured he finished a spectacular 2012 season on a high this time last year with victory in the toughest Lombardia for half a century.
Purito conquered the Sormano Wall – setting a record climbing time (for a massed start race) of nine minutes and two seconds – before attacking on Salita di Ello and soloing to victory in the driving rain.
He became the first Spaniard to win the race by holding off a chasing group which included compatriots Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Alberto Contador (Team Saxo-Tinkoff).
But what of this year?
Once again Katusha’s Spanish leader has highlighted his all-round ability, bagging second place at the Liege-Bastogne-Liege and excelling on his way to third at the Tour de France and fourth at the Giro d’Italia.
His explosive climbing ability is almost unrivaled in the peloton and the man whose nickname means ‘Little Cigar’ has been known to ‘smoke’ his rivals on tough climbs.
The mountainous parcours certainly suits the Spaniard and he enters the race on the back of finishing second at the World Championships, too.
However, having won last year Rodriguez’s card will be well and truly marked.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Froome have already proved at the Tour de France they are more than capable of matching Rodriguez in an attack, while Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) beat him to the line at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Chris Froome (Team Sky): Any suggestion Team Sky had no interest in the UCI World Rankings have been quashed by the selection of Froome for Il Lombardia.
The Tour de France champion will lead the team, backed by a fiercely strong supporting cast which also includes Colombian duo Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao.
Froome tops the world rankings after an incredible year, in which he also won the Criterium du Dauphine, Tour of Oman, Tour de Romandie and the Criterium International.
Froome is certainly capable of escaping on tough climbs like those in the Lombardia, too – as was evident with his rides up Ax-3 Domaines and Mont Ventoux at the Tour – however, the Kenyan-born Brit is yet to find one-day success and his flop in Florence was the most recent evidence of that.
With 28th place at the GP de Montreal and 36th at Liege-Bastogne-Liege his best results in one-day races so far this year, Sky may be forced to revert to Plan B to stop Purito.
In that case, Giro d’Italia runner-up Uran – in what will be his last race for Sky ahead of his winter switch to Omega Pharma-Quickstep – could come to the fore. Uran finished third in Lombardy last year – with Henao fifth – and may challenge again this year should Foome falter.
The key for the Team Sky will be their tactics – get them right and they certainly have the riders to keep Rodriguez at bay, but put all their eggs in a basket marked ‘Froome’ and it could backfire.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana): Nibali has enjoyed tremendous success when racing on home roads this year.
Overall victory in the Giro d’Italia was merely the peak of a season which has also seen success at the Giro del Trentino and Tirreno-Adriatico in 2013.
Added to second overall at the Vuelta a Espana and a fourth place finish in the World Championships, Nibali has ensured his debut year at Astana has been a memorable one.
Last time out, when riding for Liquigas-Cannondale, Nibali was part of the chasing group unable to catch Rodriguez on the final straight in treacherous conditions.
However, he is more than capable of going one better this time around with the mountainous route sure to be to his liking.
His aforementioned success at the Tirreno-Adriatico was earned after he escaped on a 30 per cent-graded climb on the penultimate stage, alongside Rodriguez and Peter Sagan.
And he followed it by earning overall victory in the race by soloing to success on the hors categorie summit finish of the final stage.
Furthermore, Nibali’s stage wins on the way to the maglia rosa at the Giro also came courtesy of attacks on tough climbs.
However, after narrowly missing out on victory at the Vuelta a Espana and then having to settle for fourth at the worlds, could Nibali be paying for his early season efforts now?
Rui Costa (Movistar): Portugal’s newly-crowned world champion will want to give the rainbow jersey the debut ride it deserves when he rolls out of Bergamo on Sunday.
And there is no reason why it could not mean standing atop the podium for the second time in as many weeks for the 26-year-old as he looks to cap a fantastic year on the bike.
Alongside defending his Tour de Suisse title, Costa twice soloed to victory on climbing stages at the Tour de France and his overall 27th place would surely have been bettered had he not sacrificed personal ambition to help team leader Alejandro Valverde.
Furthermore, the Portuguese national time trial champion also won this year’s Klasika Primavera, stood on the podium at the Tour de Romadie and, in the Classics, achieved a top-ten finish at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Costa’s ability to attack solo on the mountains of the Tour de France highlight why he could be a threat in Lombardy on the five tough climbs, while his fearless descending was a key factor in his stage 19 win at the Tour, when his descent in the rain down the Croix Fry earned him victory.
However, with Movistar having named a strong team which also includes Nairo Quintana and Valverde, Costa could be hamstrung by his commitments to the team.
If Movistar ride for him – and with the rainbow jersey on his back he could well command such respect – he will benefit from an incredibly strong support team which also boasts key climbing domestique Andrey Amador.
Alberto Contador (Team Saxo-Tinkoff): El Pistolero has seen a year which promised much ultimately fail to deliver.
He missed out on a podium place at the Tour de France having been expected to challenge Chris Froome for the yellow jersey and a host of top-ten finishes this year have not been capped by a race win.
However, the five-time Grand Tour winner remains one of the strongest riders in the peloton when the road tips uphill.
Like Movistar, Saxo-Tinkoff have also named a strong team and if Contador hopes to improve on his ninth place in Lombardy last year, he has the support to do so. Chris Sorensen, Michael Rogers and the in-form Irishman Nicolas Roche have all been selected alongside the Spaniard.
However, Contador is no stranger to performing a super-domestique role himself, as proved by his riding for Michael Rogers at the Criterium du Dauphine when his own hopes of glory faded.
As a result, with Nicolas Roche in superb form having come fifth at the Vuelta a Espana and held the red jersey for one stage, Saxo-Tinkoff may choose to support the Irishman instead.
His debut season with the Danish team has also seen Roche pick up fifth place at the Clasica Ciclista San Sebastian and Tour Mediterraneen.
Having confirmed Lombardy will be his last race of the year, the Irishman could be looking to end 2013 with his first Classics victory and is well-placed to do so should the team rally for him.
Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp): Another Irishman in fine form is Roche’s cousin, Garmin-Sharp’s Dan Martin.
The Birmingham-born rider has already beaten Rodriguez and Valverde this season, having won Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
And he further underlined his undoubted talent with a stage victory at the Tour de France, to add to overall success at the Volta a Catalunya and fourth place at La Fleche Wallone.
His climbing ability has come to the fore this year, with his stage win at the Tour de France courtesy of a well-timed break and there was no shortage of attacking from Martin at last month’s Tour of Britain.
Alongside Nairo Quintana, his fearless attacking style has earned him many plaudits in 2013.
However, after being forced to withdraw from the Vuelta a Espana through illness, Martin has seen success dry up in the latter part of the season.
His attacks at the Tour of Britain did not result in any stage victories, and he found himself having to put aside his ambitions to help team-mate Jack Bauer’s bid for an overall podium spot.
He was unable to finish the world championship road race – although, of course, he was by no means alone – and this week his 11th-place finish at Milano-Torino saw him unable to keep pace with Valverde and Contador.
If Martin can recapture the form which saw him stand on top of the podium on several occasions earlier in the year, he will be a contender at Lombardy.