Greg Van Avermaet attacks on the Poggio as the others watch, including eventual race winner John Degenkolb. The photo doesn’t do the action justice because if you’ve been watching on TV this is a moment of almost unbearable tension.
Milan-Sanremo is the longest race on the pro calendar yet it’s so often dependent on events in the last five minutes.
In the last 10 years the earliest the winning move has happened… is on the Poggio with 7.3km to go when Vincenzo Nibali’s attack was tracked by Simon Gerrans who won the sprint in 2012. Here’s a chart depicting where the winning move was formed for the last decade:
In the other editions there have been “sprint finishes” albeit out of select group rather than a giant bunch. We had a few late moves, whether Fabian Cancellara’s attack with 2km to go in 2008; or in the abbreviated 2013 edition won by Gerald Ciolek saw the seven rider group form with 5km to go on the descent of the Poggio. So here we have the paradox of the longest race where the winning move is launched within the shortest distance to the finish.
The chart above shows 10 years but this isn’t data cherry-picking. We have to go back to
2003 to find a winner, Paolo Bettini, 1996 to find a winner, Gabriele Colombo, who went clear on the Cipressa. For any long range breaks we go back to 1991 when Claudio Chiappucci won the race having being on manoeuvres for over 140km after joining an attack that went clear over the Turchino pass.
It’s a contrast to other, shorter classics. Last year Niki Terpstra and Alexander Kristoff launched the winning move in the Tour of Flanders with 28km to go. John Degenkolb rode away from the pack with 11.5km to go in Paris-Roubaix and Vincenzo Nibali’s attack on the climb through Civiglio with 16km remaining won him the Tour of Lombardy. That’s just 2015.
Not that the rest of the race is empty, every pedal stroke counts, it’s the scale of the race that makes the race what it is. The distance, to mangle metaphors, levels the playing field. It’s why we can have sprinters, classics specialists and grand tour contenders all in the action over the Poggio, arguably it’s the only race of the year where they compete head to head. The long distance means that the Poggio, barely a fourth category climb, takes on a great significance as fatigue has set in. Easy enough for a sprinter in top shape to pass, hard enough for a punchy rider or even a grand tour specialist to give it a go. Look at the list of previous winners and it screams quality too, somehow the Poggio rarely picks a dud.
There’s plenty of action before the Poggio too. Many moves go on the Cipressa and time after time it looks like there’s a move floating away on the Via Aurelia coastal road through Arma di Taggia between the Cipressa and Poggio as teams look at each other to take up the chase. If the stats say the Poggio picks the winner it never feels this certain as move threaten to take the win, it’s this uncertainty that makes it a gripping watch.
The Masterchef method
So if the race comes down to the final five minutes should you watch any more of it? Of course you should. Turn on your TV in the evening and the prime time slots have similar production techniques to a quality bike race at work in reality TV shows. People cook dishes, they sell the contents of storage lockers, do home and garden makeovers and perform tasks on tropical islands. Now you could save yourself the bother of watching an inane 40 minutes of someone rustling up a soufflé or painting a bathroom by watching the last two minutes to see who won the episode but of course the drama is in the production. The filming, editing and narration are deliberately employed to create tension using clever psychological hooks before the “reveal” moment at the end of the show where the winner emerges. The race to Sanremo is the same, the rising stress as riders begin to get dropped on the Capo Berta, a crash as someone wipes out on the spray from the fountain in Imperia and then instead of a panel of judges, the Cipressa and Poggio are the selectors. Only it’s all real and live.
Milan-Sanremo is longest race of the year but paradoxically it’s the least suited to long breakaways. If you’re pressed for time it’s probably the classic you can catch late with almost all the decisive action coming in the final kilometres or even metres. Yet there’s something rewarding about watching the race unfold and feeling the tension rise as the race approaches the Poggio and then snakes down into Sanremo.
The race starts at this Saturday at 10.00am Milan time, TV coverage begins on RAI Sport 2 at 1.30pm with the live international feed starting at 2.15pm and the race is forecast to finish on the Via Roma at 5.00pm.