Milano-Sanremo: The Monkey Wrench Race
Milano-Sanremo. It is one of my favorite races of the year. It’s unpredictable. The roads are brutal and beautiful. The final climb comes not much more than five kilometers from the finish. A whole bike race happens in the tight space between the beginning of il Poggio and the finish in Sanremo. Everything can change in a few short kilometers.
Cycling’s longest one-day race sets out from Milano and runs across 100 kilometers of flat plains. There is really not much to say about this part. It’s flat. It’s 100 kilometers. It’s the race to get to the bike race. Then it’s on to the Passo del Turchino, which serves as a gateway to the coast.
For a writer, cycling is a minefield of metaphor. It’s impossible not to stumble on the fucking things. It’s as relentless as the gradient of a Pyrenean pass blanched by the summer sun. That’s not exactly a metaphor, but you see what I mean.
The Turchino begs for comparison to the turning of the seasons, the passage from the darkness of winter to the joyous light of spring. There is a tunnel at the summit, even. Though the climb does not do much to influence the outcome of the race these days, it marks a transition. After descending the Turchino, the riders turn right and hurtle down the Ligurian Coast. Destination: Sanremo.
In 1946, Fausto Coppi crossed the summit of the Passo del Turchino alone. At the end of that long day, he won in Sanremo after one of his signature solo escapes. Less than a year had passed since the end of World War II in Italy. Writing for l’Équipe, Claude Tillet turned Coppi’s exploit into a symbol of renewal.
“The Turchino tunnel was of modest dimensions, just 50 meters long, but on 19th March 1946 it assumed exceptional proportions in the eyes of the world. That day it was six years in length and lost in the gloom of the war… A rumbling was heard from the depths of those six years and suddenly there appeared in the light of day an olive-greenish car stirring up a cloud of dust:
‘Arriva Coppi’ , the messenger announced, a revelation only the initiated had foreseen. Coppi arrived very quickly as it turned out.”
Through the tunnel of war and into the light of peace. In those immediate postwar years, cycling carried a heavy burden of symbolism as the exploits of the riders stood in for hopes of rebirth and renewal, especially in Italy and France, where the war left deep divisions and economic hardships. Coppi’s long solo escapes fit easily into a narrative of striving through hardship toward joy. Metaphor, escape it if you can.
Coppi’s long breakaways are a thing of the past now, and the sprinters have asserted ownership over the Italy’s spring classic. When we talk of favorites, the sprinters typically top the list, but the introduction of the Le Mánie climb outside Savona has complicated their chances. The climb is steep, the descent technical.
Poor positioning or bad legs on Le Mánie means a long chase back, as Mark Cavendish learned the hard way. If there is rain, the descent of Le Mánie is a casino. Just ask Oscar Freire, whose race ended with a crash in one of the descent’s tight hairpins.
Mele, Cervo, Berta. The three climbs sound mythological in their deviltry. These three short climbs — the Capi — come in rapid succession. More positioning battles, more twisting descents, more climbing for the sprinters, who really have no interest in wasting their legs on such things. Get to the final kilometer, already, they will be thinking.
Not so fast. Because now we get to the real business of Milano-Sanremo: La Cipressa and il Poggio. Paolo Bettini was the last big rider to try an escape from La Cipressa. It’s a long, flat road between La Cipressa and Il Poggio, and there is nearly always a headwind. Risk it, if you like, but don’t get your hopes up.
It’s always surprising just how short il Poggio really is. Blink, and you’ll miss it. The early ramps nearly always tempt an early attack, but the riders who succeed, wait until near the summit to attack. As The Minx aptly put it over at Bangable Dudes of Pro Cycling, one of the more colorful cycling blogs out there, Milano-Sanremo is about how well a dude goes down.
The mad descent off il Poggio is only for the acrobats. Sean Kelly, Paolo Bettini: They won Milano-Sanremo on the descent from the Poggio. The twisting descent complicates the chase for the sprinters. Fall back too far on the Poggio and forget about making it back in time for the finish.
Though the descent favors the escape, the long drag to the finish tends to shift the balance back to the chase. The Lungomare Italo Calvino: If you want me, I’ll be on the beach with Difficult Loves. The run-in to the finish is a wide, flat road, and typically, there is a headwind. Fabian Cancellara escaped and won solo here in a strongman’s move. There are few riders who can escape on a flat road in a headwind.
The current finish — as opposed to the classic finish on the Via Roma — features a tight turn within the final 500 meters. By now, the sprinters are crying. This was supposed to be our race! They even call it the sprinters’ classic! Why are there so many climbs? Why isn’t the finish straight? Why can’t we wiiiinnn? To put things in perspective, it took Mario Cipollini fourteen attempts to win the sprinters’ classic.
It’s true, the past few editions of Milano-Sanremo have not smiled on the sprinters. The race has split and reformed over the climbs and one after another, the sprinters have gone out the back. Last year brought a surprise winner, Simon Gerrans from a group of three. Bunch sprinters, eat your heart out.
The tricky roads make Milano-Sanremo unpredictable, and typically, it is not kind to the pre-race favorites. This year, forecasts call for rain, which adds a wildcard to an already wild race.
With his finishing speed and bike handling wizardry, Peter Sagan is made for this race. Little wonder nearly every prediction puts him in the catbird seat as the favorite. It’s rare to see a rider so obviously on form for a race that so clearly suits him. But Milano-Sanremo is the monkey wrench race.
Beyond Sagan: Cancellara, Nibali, Cavendish are all obvious picks. Less obvious? Tyler Farrar, Heinrich “Barbie” Haussler, Sylvain Chavanel, Geraint Thomas, Pippo “Don’t Judge Me” Pozzato, Luca Paolini, and Yoann “the Eyebrows” Offredo. Seriously, you guys, the eyebrows on Offredo. Those things are dangerous.
But you want me to pick a winner, don’t you. So demanding. For me, Milano-Sanremo is the least predictable of the major races. So no. I’m not going to pick a winner. I’m just going to watch the bike race and dream of perfect metaphors.