Bold Solo Ride Gives Pogačar Third Il Lombardia Win in a Row

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

Slovenian superstar Tadej Pogačar won the year’s final Monument race, the Il Lombardia, for the third year in a row when he made a signature solo breakaway of nearly 30 km and was never threatened by a tired pursuing group, which included his Slovenian compatriot and race co-favourite Primož Roglič.

The two-time Tour de France winner crossed the finish line 52 seconds ahead of Soudal-QuickStep’s Andrea Bagioli and Roglič, who was riding in his last race for his team of the past eight years, Jumbo-Visma. Bagioli was not the Soudal-QuickStep rider everyone expected to see on the podium. That was Remco Evenepoel, who had made winning the race a personal objective and had trained hard for it in the run-up. He crashed after only 21km had been raced on the 238km course from Como to Bergamo and appeared at first too badly hurt to continue. He remounted and, after making it back to the peloton, had his badly bleeding elbow bandaged. But he faltered on the race’s penultimate climb, the Passo di Granda (9.3km @ 7.3%, with ramps of up to 15%), and finished 9th, 1:26 behind the winner.

Pogačar was, of course, delighted to end the year with a big win against many of the best riders on the road. He was also happy with how he won it. “It’s a dream to come solo,” he said after the race. “Today, it was fantastic. I was enjoying the last few kilometres even if it was so, so painful, I was enjoying it a lot.”

It was painful because his thighs began to cramp up with 11.5 km to go, and he punched them several times to try to relax the muscles. “When I got cramps, I was thinking [that] this is not going to end well,” he said. “I had to lower the pace quite a bit and I tried to focus on being aero[dynamic] until the [final] climb and I crossed my fingers and hoped that behind me will not be great cooperation. I was confident that I could make it to the finish but, at the same time, you never know because after six hours of racing this little climb to the finish [the Colle Aperto] is hard.”

He got his wish about the pursuing group, which appeared to be either indecisive or simply too tired to try to catch him. Pogačar’s victory was historic for several reasons. For one, he is only the third rider to win three Lombardias in succession, after the Italians Alfredo Binda and Fausto Coppi who won four in a row from 1946 to 1949. He is also the second rider to have won Il Lombardia and the Tour of Flanders in the same season, after Hennie Kuiper in 1981.

Pogačar said that 2023 had been his best season for a while but regretted the crash in Liège–Bastogne–Liège in which he broke his wrist and lost valuable training time leading up to the Tour de France, where he finished a distant second to Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma). “This year was one of [my] best seasons,” he said. “But if I would not [have been] injured, it would have been another level. But I can be pretty satisfied.”

After a frantic and fascinating start to the race, with many breakaway attempts, a 10-rider group finally managed to get away after 7 km. They were pursued by a group of six riders that eventually caught them. With 115 km to go, Evenepoel marshalled his Soudal-QuickStep team, which surged to the front of the bunch and accelerated the pace. The gap to the now 16-rider breakaway, which never exceeded 4 min 20 sec, began to come down quickly.

With 83.6 km left to race, 20-year-old Team DSM-Firmenich rider Oscar Onley broke away from the peloton with the dangerous Ben Healy (EF Education-EasyPost). They two passed numerous riders dropped by the leading breakaway and eventually caught that lead group with 73 km to go. Then, with 33 km left in the race, Healy was alone in front. But not for long because Pogačar’s UAE Team Emirates had taken control of the peloton and upped the tempo considerably on the the Passo di Granda ascent. Soon Evenepoel was dropped, and shortly after the lead group crossed the summit, Pogačar made his winning move, opening up a widening gap on the curvy descent.

“Legs, legs, legs,” Roglič said after the race, after being asked what it takes to win the Il Lombardia. “I missed [them] today. I really needed to fight the last 50k. A moto blocked me on [final] descent but I came from behind with speed to reach the podium.”

So, an exciting and dramatic road race season nears its end, though the drama is far from over. Many questions remain. Will the Jumbo-Visma merger with Soudal-QuickStep go ahead and what will happen to the Soudal riders if it does? Will Evenepoel stay with Soudal or find a team that better matches his Grand Tour ambitions? Who will BORA-Hansgrohe recruit over the winter to support Roglič in next year’s Tour de France?

It’s hard to believe that 2024 could be more exciting than this year has been. But with Roglič now at BORA-Hansgrohe and Vingegaard, Evenepoel and Pogačar all targeting the Tour de France and other big races, it just might be.