The best hour of the road racing season?

by Peter Cossins

Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by

Milan-Sanremo is derided by many, yet its anticipation-heavy finale sets it apart from almost every other race on the calendar and is the foundation to its monumental status

The concurrent running of Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico is among the many quirks of the international cycling calendar, but it’s one that I’ve long since grown to like. Among the sport’s most prestigious week-long stage races, they tend to attract stellar fields and are often accompanied by unpredictable weather that adds more spice to the racing. What’s more, the respective organisers know that by staggering their finish times, they can share and widen the TV audience. Watch the last 50k of one, then the last 30 of the other. What could better than that on a dismal March afternoon?

What’s more, they arrive at the same time as several other sporting high points, forming part of Super Saturdays and Sundays that feature a spread of events and action. Following extended negotiation with my teenage children over access to the TV, I like to mix my “race to the sun” and “race of the two seas” combo with a dash of football and a large tablespoon of Six Nations rugby, and this past weekend served up a treat.

“Milan-Sanremo may be derided by many as too long and too predictable to be worth watching, but in my sporting world the last hour of La Classicissima is one of the stand-out moments of any year.”

My Super Sunday featured the finale of Paris-Nice followed by Wales against France in the rugby. I enjoyed both hugely, but I was struck, as I often am, by the way that rugby – and football too – can move and thrill me in ways that road cycling rarely does. Like the previous two Six Nations games over the weekend, fortunes fluctuated constantly during the game in Cardiff, the unpredictability encapsulated in one incredible moment of improvisation and skill by French debutant Nolann Le Garrec, which introduced me to a new French word, “chistera”.

While cycling can deliver such moments too, they’re most likely to be seen in bunch sprints, on the track or on the mud and sand of a cyclo-cross circuit. Road racing tends to follow a more predictable template, and especially stage races, where the strongest almost always prevail, often without Le Garrec-like flourishes. Riders may appreciate the certainty of this process, the fact that if their form is good and they can avoid mishaps, then a certain level of performance should follow. But I suspect most fans would prefer to watch racing that has a touch more uncertainty, hence the excitement when a Grand Tour organiser inserts a day on the sterrati or pavé into an event.

Wondering about moments in the racing season when I can guarantee that my pulse will start to race and I’ll be totally enthralled by what’s happening on the screen in front of me in the same way as it was during that Wales-France match, I don’t have to think too far ahead. Just to this coming weekend in fact.

Milan-Sanremo may be derided by many as too long and too predictable to be worth watching, but in my sporting world the last hour of La Classicissima is one of the stand-out moments of any year. The opening 200km may be of very little interest to most viewers, but they’re entirely necessary to the final outcome.

For TV spectators, the race becomes much more interesting when it reaches the Mediterranean coast, and increasingly enthralling beyond that point. I like to pick it up before the riders reach the three capi, the huge boundary stones that mark out the start of the finale. The last and biggest of them, the Capo Berta, arrives with 40km remaining. There’s no let-up in the peloton’s pace or the tension beyond this point. What lies ahead is one of the most enthralling hours of the season.

With 27km left, the riders reach the foot of the Cipressa. It’s now 28 years since Gabriele Colombo was part of the last winning attack made on Sanremo’s penultimate climb. Can anyone (Tadej Pogačar, according to many) emulate the Italian? History says it’s unlikely. What is certain is that the Cipressa will end the hopes of some contenders.

On the peloton will barrel, pinballing along the spectacular coastal road at close to 60kph, the momentum too fierce for any small groups to resist it. With 8km to the line, the frenzied bunch switches right onto the Poggio. The critical point in recent seasons has been around a kilometre from the top of this 2.5km hill. It’s here the elastic tends to snap, perhaps leaving a solo rider clear, but more likely a group.

At that point, there are 6,500m to go. Victory can be forged or defeat faced at almost any one of them. We all know who’s likely to be in contention, but the final verdict is still usually impossible to decipher. The favourites are likely to be in the frame, but there’ll be wild cards too, canny riders like Matej Mohorič and Jasper Stuyven, who’ll use those odds to confound the big stars, knowing they’re unlikely to collaborate wholly with each other. Then comes the sprint, a totally unpredictable affair after 300km of racing, and, finally, the line, bringing with it a release of the anticipation and excitement that’s been building for an hour or more.

It may be a sporting anomaly, derided by some, but Sanremo endures because its spectacular setting is matched by its orgasmic finale, the foreplay of the long run from Milan absolutely essential to the experience.

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