Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com
Long it may be, and even boring to some, but Sanremo is the ultimate mirror on the sport of bike racing, topped off with the most thrilling finale of the season
The hashtag – tongue in cheek but right on the nose at the same time – captures it perfectly: #isMilanSanremoexcitingyet? It alludes to the race’s extraordinary distance, suggests that it’s overly long, and confirms that it’s going to end with one heck of bang.
I don’t expect I’ll be shocking too many by admitting that I always relish Sanremo day – well, the last quarter of it at least. I’ll confess that I used to struggle to appreciate it, particularly in the 1990s and Noughties when it tended to be a nailed-on sprint finish. But the blinkers fell when I was writing the first edition of The Monuments back in 2013.
I was at that year’s race, run in arctic conditions that resulted in the riders being called to a halt approaching the Turchino pass and taking refuge in team cars and buses. Transported down to the coast, they restarted beneath the snowline and Gerald Ciolek emerged as the unheralded winner on the first occasion his MTN-Qhubeka team had been invited to the race, their appearance described by team boss Doug Ryder at the start that morning as a victory in itself. Ryder, I well recall, struggled to say anything at all after the finish, such was his shock.
I also spoke at some length to former La Gazzetta dello Sport correspondent Marco Pastonesi, who evoked the race’s history and its hold on the Italian sporting and cultural psyche, its significance as a marker of the switch from winter to spring, initially crossing the misty Piedmont plains, where hibernation has not given way to awakening, then emerging from the tunnel on the Turchino pass into brightness and a blossoming landscape.
Milan-Sanremo is the essence of every race in one day. It has the history, mostly built around Italian riders in its early decades until the sport’s post-Second World War flourishing. It is an anchor in the calendar, its route varying only slightly from its original course in 1905. Above all, it has that totally captivating finale, the tension building and building over seven hours to reach a crescendo on the approach to Sanremo.
Every year, the same debate flares up about its validity as a spectacle and even as a Monument. At the centre of this is the question, is it too long? I’m in the camp of those who will always defend it. For a start, it needs to be 300km long to travel from Milan to Sanremo. Some may argue for a cut to 250km, in line with cycling’s other Monuments. But Pavia-Sanremo or Milan-Albenga will never evoke the same anticipation among fans and would only be bastardised versions of a legend.
Some have suggested that it should cede its place as a Monument to Strade Bianche, a race that’s little more than half the length, has less than a fifth of Sanremo’s history, and features just a handful of likely winners on its startlist each year. Strade Bianche is spectacular, but more predictable. You know where your money needs to go if you’re betting on a winner.
In Sanremo’s case, length is crucial. It needs to be 300km, otherwise it wouldn’t be a unique racing challenge, testing racers to their limit. This sense of apartness is buttressed by “La Primavera” being within the range of a broad spectrum of riders – puncheurs, climbers, rouleurs, baroudeurs and, of course, sprinters.
During Paris-Nice, Tadej Pogačar described it as the hardest of the Monuments for him to win when asked if he was targeting all five of these great one-day races because there are so many variables. Resident in Monaco, he revealed that he quite often heads to Sanremo on training rides and climbs the Poggio, the race’s final climb, going through various tactical options as he does so, assessing which one might best serve as the launch pad for a winning attack. At the same race, Tim Merlier, arguably the fastest sprinter in the bunch at the moment, pointed up that this status doesn’t necessarily equate to a strong chance of victory on the Via Roma because of the event’s distance and the awkward hurdles that need to be crossed approaching Sanremo.
I suspect that the significant underlying reason for Sanremo’s lack of favour among some race fans is the fact that it highlights better that any race the predictable format of the sport of cycle racing: the break forming early on, building a big lead, the bunch idling behind until the moment arrives when it begins to pick up speed, aiming for the capture, leading to the final skirmishes, some moments of unpredictability occurring along the way, but the bulk of the drama reserved until the very final kilometres. Almost every day of racing adheres to this template, but Sanremo emphasises it like no other event. It positively shouts out: “This is what bike racing is.”
It can be dismissed as too long, out of time, dull. But that misses the nuance that is central to Milan-Sanremo’s attraction and fundamental to understanding and enjoying the sport’s beauty. It’s every race in one, topped off with the most thrilling finale of the season.
The updated second edition of The Monuments by Peter Cossins is on sale from 16 March.