On paper if I described a seven hour race where nothing happens until the last 10 minutes, you might not get excited. If I described a race that his very flat and often won by the sprinters, then again you might not be excited. But there’s something special about Milan-Sanremo.
First the race is exceptional and the longest on the calendar. UCI rules cap races at 250km but this one is exempted and it’s a full 298km. As you can see above, the first 115km are flat, the riders cross the plains of Lombardy, dominated by the river Po and its rice fields. Often an early breakaway goes. Then comes the Turchino pass from Ovada, a gradual climb that lifts riders across a range of hills. It’s big ring stuff and from the top riders can see the Mediterranean sea below. From here the race hits the coast, heading west in an arc along the Mediterrean to San Remo.
There’s the climb of La Manie and then the capi, or capes when the route briefly climbs inland. None of these are hard by themselves but the riders have done 250km by now and the pace is accelerating. It’s all about positioning, a sprinter who is on the wrong wheel now will waste energy and pay for it later or even get dropped. But every team wants its sprinter up there and so it’s a race into each of the climbs.
The Cipressa comes with 20km to go. A harder climb but again not steep, it is a crucial moment of selection where many riders will disappear out the back thanks to the crazy speed. Gaps open up and it’s game over for many here.
The race flashes along the coast now, it’s not uncommon to hit 60km/h whilst a sea breeze buffets the riders. Here the fight for position is frantic as the final climb approaches. The Poggio (literally “small hill”) comes after 290km and it’s normally the determining moment of the race. Under 3km long and averaging under 4%, it’s got an 8% section. But it’s narrow and a series of hairpin bends means you have to be near the front or risk losing in the split. The descent is extremely dangerous and normally the TV motorbikes have to back off it bit. The race sweeps into Sanremo and the final run in is flat with wide bends, it’s here that the sprinters finally feel at ease. Then the finish is right by the seaside, on the Lungomare, a slightly curving road where a sea breeze is possible but the riders can exploit the barriers and crowds.
The tyranny of distance
Yet for all the talk of this of the route being flat and not selective, there’s rarely a fluke win. Yes it’s very hard to pick a winner and the list of potential candidates is quite open. But only a few can force the pace after almost 300km. Upsets are rare, it’s possible to get a surprise winner but last year Cyclesport’s Lionel Birnie observed that the podium of Freire, Boonen and Petacchi translated to 310 races between them. If this isn’t a selection of the world’s best riders, then what is?
A slow burning fuse with an explosion at the end
You might think it pointless to watch anything but the last 15 minutes but the build up is part of the process. Who knows, maybe a break will get away this year. But if not, it’s all about the crescendo, the slow way that the pace picks up, the gradual change from 40 to 60km/h that turns into some of the most frantic racing at the end. Riders have to be in place in Flanders and Roubaix but you can often recover from a mistake, lose a wheel before the Poggio and it’s often game over. It’s this contrast, a long race but the fastest of finishes, a flat route where a tiny hill is critical. The whole point here it to watch as much as you can, to gradually feel the tension, to spot the riders bumping shoulders, to see who struggles to hold the wheels. Bring on Saturday!