Milan-Sanremo: worth the hype

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.

Who dares sometimes wins

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.

2010 podium
Three men, 310 victories

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!

13 thoughts on “Milan-Sanremo: worth the hype”

  1. After my “wild Tuscan panino chase” experience where I missed seeing any Strade Bianche race action, I’ve got my hotel reservations for Friday night and have all the info I need. The plan is to arrive in the area early afternoon, grab lunch in the town of Poggio, then stash the motorcycle somewhere and find my place on the climb to watch the action!!! Thanks for the analysis!

  2. I too like the slow build up. One minute you are watching with the idea “I could ride that”, then the next minute you think “I could not drive my car that fast up the Poggio”.

  3. bill rupy: it’s hard to find a place on the climb. There are crowds at the top but not much room on the road itself as it’s walled. You can stand on top of these but a tip is to make sure you can stand back as the riders come past so close.

    Cees: true, the way they go around the corners uphill is impressive. 52×16 and a cadence of 100.

    Starr: it’s piano… but I feel some tension already, like I know it’s building up for the final moments already.

  4. It is a race for coneseurs and the past winners have all become legends. In 1996 I trained at Cipressa and Poggio during my summer holidays, and suddenly one early morning at the steap section on Poggio – 1 2 3 out of nowhere – came Cabriel Colombo (1996´winner of La Primavera) blowing past me with his saturday ride, acting like he owned the Poggio. Well, he actually did at that time. But I don´t recall him winning anything bigger during his carrer, but somehow I´m sure that if you flashed his eyes today with one of the old german interegations lamps, bringing all the shadows from the Gewiss-Ballan era forth, and asked him the question: “do you regret anything? He would answer: “NO”! And this is one of the more complexe issues in professionel cycling; Taking the risk somtimes pay heavy of if you get away with it – exactly as riding the finish of La Primavera. We love it – we hate it – but as coneseurs we simply can´t live without it. Let the show beginn..

  5. La Primavera….the start of the spring madness!! It’s brilliant, first Saturday in the season where the Barolo starts flowing, pane and formaggio through the day and a nice Pizza to finish…make you think of days in May

  6. Just took a look at the start list.
    The big ol USA has 2 starters from 4 American teams (Hincapie, Farrar).
    Aussies have 13 starters from “zero” Aussie teams.

    What the hell are they drinking Down Under?

  7. We saw MSR last year on the Poggio. Rode over the Cipressa and up to Poggio, arriving in time for lunch. Found a nice spot with a TV within view of our table and the nice owners let us stay until the race was within minutes of arriving. We ran out to the street to see the race pass by, then headed onto the course to the finish. More details can be viewed here –
    We’ll never forget this day! Next on the list is Giro di Lombardia 2011 and Tour of Flanders/Paris-Roubaix 2012. That will leave only L-B-L to complete the five monuments of cycling for us, perhaps we can see that one in 2013?

Comments are closed.