Alejandro Valverde, Philippe Gilbert and Vincenzo Nibali in a rare group photo, taken at the 2012 World Championships which Gilbert would go on to win.

A fond farewell: Who had their retirement party this weekend?

Vincenzo Nibali, Alejandro Valverde and Philippe Gilbert are three of the pros who have raced their last race.

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The peloton’s retirement party had a few venues this weekend, most notably Lombardy and the roads between Paris (Chartres) and Tours. Among those crossing their final finish line were three titans of men’s cycling, Vincenzo Nibali, Alejandro Valverde and Philippe Gilbert, who have 265 (official) victories between them.

You might say it’s the end of an era, and this trio is far from the only ones bidding ‘adieu’ to the professional peloton.

Alejandro Valverde and Vincenzo Nibali were given a hero’s welcome at the start of Il Lombardia, the last race of their long careers.

Vincenzo Nibali

As Tadej Pogačar capped off his fourth year in the pro ranks with yet another Monumental victory, others were riding their last few-hundred kilometres in the peloton. Vincenzo Nibali was one of them, Italy’s greatest general classification hope of the past decade or so. Nibali is both a member of the Grand Tour triple crown club and a man for the hilly Classics, with two Lombardia wins and a memorable Milan-Sanremo to his name.

The fondly nicknamed ‘Shark of Messina’ started Saturday’s Il Lombardia on a custom bike, and after hanging with the favourites for 230 kilometres, he finally dropped off the pace on the brutal penultimate climb 20 km from the finish.

“I felt good but you need to be at 100% to win here,” Nibali said after the finish, rolling over the line 24th. “It was a fast, hard race, even more so than other editions I’ve raced. I suffered on the Civiglio climb and paid for it. I couldn’t do it much more and so I’ve no regrets.”

He did not add a third Il Lombardia win to his 52-long tally, but he added six and a half unforgettable hours to his long career, the tifosi cheering him on as always.

“I’ll miss it all but there’s no going back, I’m done,” Nibali said. “I enjoyed every kilometre, from the start in Bergamo to the finish in Como. Today was a special day, it was emotional to see all the fans along the roadside.”

Alejandro Valverde

There are few races in the calendar untouched by Alejandro Valverde, whose extraordinary two-decade career ended on the sun-kissed shores of Lake Como on Saturday. The 42-year-old started as an outside favourite to contest victory, Il Lombardia being one of the few events he’s not added to his palmarès, but he finished sixth in the end, 19 years after he made his debut at the ‘Race of the Falling Leaves’.

Valverde files a sixth place at Il Lombardia as the last entry in his illustrious palmarès.

The multi-hyphenate racer leaves the pro ranks with a deep and far-reaching legacy – albeit punctured by a doping ban – which may yet be extended as he takes up a behind-the-scenes role at Movistar where he’s served since 2005. Just what he’ll be doing is unclear at this point, whether he’ll be in the race car or involved in the coaching and performance side, but he’s expected to remain a guiding light for his totemic successor, Enric Mas.

“I feel excited about the future, but sadness for leaving with this great level,” Valverde said after finishing sixth at Il Lombardia. “Also happiness, for the enormous work that the team has done today all day and to be able to fight.”

While it might seem an era of Spanish cycling is coming to a close with Bala’s retirement, if the Vuelta podium and the late-season surge enjoyed by Movistar is anything to go by – thanks to Enric Mas, Gonzalo Serrano and Iván García Cortina – a new era is already well underway.

Mikel Nieve

A highly honourable mention should go to Mikel ‘Frosty’ Nieve whose career ended about 150 kilometres earlier than planned when he crashed out of Il Lombardia with a broken collarbone.

“I arrived wanting to do well, Lombardia is a race that I like, but a bottle crossed the road and we could do nothing about it,” Nieve explained on Saturday evening. “It’s obvious that I would have liked to finish in a different way, but cycling is like that and it’s time to accept it.”

The Basque climber bowed out of his quietly impressive career with second division team Caja Rural-Seguros RGA after 12 years at WorldTour level. In that time, Nieve enjoyed general classification contention, took the Giro’s KOM jersey in 2016, and scored five individual WorldTour victories, taking a stage win at his home Grand Tour in only his second year, and three Giro d’Italia stages between 2011 and 2018.

When not hunting down his own glory, he played an instrumental role in that of many others, most notably Chris Froome, who he helped to three consecutive Grand Tour victories while at Team Sky. He was that reliable and highly sought-after rider: a loyal-to-the-end domestique who is capable of seizing his own opportunity on the very rare occasion it is offered, usually when a leader is ruled out.

“Despite the blows and the broken collarbone, I’m fine,” Nieve said. “Now it’s time to look forward, my stage as a cyclist concludes here, and I’m satisfied and proud of everything I’ve experienced.”

Philippe Gilbert

Gilbert on stage with Arnaud Démare before Paris-Tours, which the Frenchman would go on to win for the second year in a row, the first to do so since the man standing/sitting beside him achieved the feat in 2009.

Philippe Gilbert chose the brutal French one-dayer Paris-Tours for his farewell race, and frankly, the beloved Belgian Classics specialist did well to stay more or less out of trouble during the crash-marred dash through the vineyards of the Loire.

“I’m happy that I was up there in the final, which was important to me, although it was difficult to attack,” Gilbert said after finishing in the front group. “It was a fun but hectic day out on the gravel roads with lots of crashes but I’m happy to finish my last race unscathed.

“In the final, I still tried to do something but it was hard with many strong sprinters and their teammates still present. Now, let’s enjoy!”

It seems only right that Gilbert ended his career in Tours having taken back-to-back victories there in 2008-09, back when his stock was still climbing towards its zenith. He already had a Giro stage under his wheels, and he’d take his first Monument in Lombardy a week later, his 25th of a total 80 career victories. In two decades with four teams (returning to Lotto Soudal for his last three seasons) he took stages at all three Grand Tours, a World Championship title and four out of five Monuments – Milan-Sanremo being the one that got away, despite being his most-raced event outside the national champs with no less than 18 starts.

While Gilbert was not as prolific in his latter seasons, he found triumph in his final year at the Four Days of Dunkirk this May, his first victory since a wonderful 2019 when he landed that long-awaited Paris-Roubaix title and two Vuelta stages.

Niki Terpstra and Sebastian Langeveld

Also closing their decades-long Classics campaigns at the French semi-Classic were one-day specialists Niki Terpstra and Sebastian Langeveld. Theirs was a day of, shall we say, mixed fortunes, Langeveld coming in over 10 minutes down and Terpstra bringing up the rear as the last of 128 finishers.

The 2014 Paris-Roubaix champion was caught up in one of the dramatic earlier crashes and had it not been his last race, he might have climbed off. But Terpstra was compelled to cross the finish line.

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