Michał Kwiatkowski attacks on the Poggio as the Tinkoff team behind chases to aide their leader Peter Sagan, the pre-race pick. Kwiatkowski’s got a gap and he’s a mean descender so he’s in with a chance. 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 20 years the earliest place 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 20 years:
In the other editions there have been “sprint finishes” 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 which saw the seven rider group form with 5km to go during 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.
We have to go back to 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 (pictured) won the race after joining an attack that went clear on the Turchino pass with 140km to go.
It’s a contrast to other classics. Last year Peter Sagan’s the winning move in the Tour of Flanders went with 32km to go. Mathew Hayman went in the morning breakaway in Paris-Roubaix. Esteban Chaves went on the rampage with 35km remaining to win the Tour of Lombardy. That’s just 2016.
Not that the rest of the race is empty, it’s so long that every pedal stroke counts. 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, a rarity that even the Strade Bianche can’t deliver. 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’s big on quality, the distance and the Poggio conspire to prevent dud winners.
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 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 moves threaten to take the win and it’s this uncertainty that makes it a gripping watch.
The Masterchef method
If the race comes down to the final five minutes why watch the hours of live coverage? It’s worth asking and if the whole season was like this then the sport wouldn’t exist. But the slow burn approach leading to a cliffhanger is what TV is all about. The prime time slots are full of reality shows deploying similar production techniques to a quality bike race. People cook dishes, sell the contents of storage lockers, renovate homes 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 watching the paint dry during a home renovation 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 analysis of the early breakaway, the time gap on the Turchino pass, the rising stress as riders begin to get dropped on the Capo Berta, the crashes and then, instead of a panel of judges, the Cipressa and Poggio are the selectors. Only it’s real and live.
Milan-Sanremo is longest race of the year and paradoxically the least suited to long range breakaways. If you’re pressed for time it’s probably the one classic you can catch late since almost all the decisive action comes 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.