Why change the Milan-Sanremo route?

sprint sanremo

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”
Il Gattopardo, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Unlike the riders who gradually get more and more tired, those of us viewing the race on TV get more and more energised as the finish line approaches. There’s now talk of changing the route. This is normal.

I wrote a blog piece for cyclingnews the other day saying the classics are always changing. Milan-Sanremo is a fine example as the organisers revolutionised the race with the Poggio in 1960 after several Flemish sprinters “stole” the race from Italians. Since then the organisers have added the Cipressa and as recently as 2008, Le Manie. A decade ago we had the Bric Berton instead of the Turchino Pass. The finish line keeps moving. It has been within sight of the bottom of the Poggio, its most famous finish was the Via Roma, Sanremo’s prime thoroughfare. Today it finishes on the Lungomare, the seaside promenade. The route is constantly changing but the race remains great.

As much as the route has changed, I can’t see many arguments to change it now. In 2008 Fabian Cancellara impersonated a Ducati motorbike with a late attack after Poggio. In 2009 Heinrich Haussler’s Ferrari acceleration was thrilling and the way Mark Cavendish got him on the finish line was superb drama. 2010 saw Oscar Freire win, less exciting perhaps. But 2011 overcompensated with a thrilling race from Le Manie as the race split apart and breakaways formed and reformed and the result was uncertain until Matthew Goss got the better of Fabian Cancellara and Philippe Gilbert.

New Cipressa
Talk is now focussing on a change to the Cipressa. Cipressa is a misleading name since the climb really rises to the village of Costarainera… then levels on the ridge to the village of Cipressa for the descent. Either way, there is a new road up the hill, named appropriately the Strada Nova. Instead of starting from the town of San Lorenzo Al Mare, it begins futher along the coats from Piani Paorelli. The current Cipressa is 5km long at 4.8% and the “new” climb would be 3.5km to reach the same altitude, making it 7%. This would change everything since the Cipressa is currently a fast climb where being on the right wheel counts, a sprinter can benefit from drafting as the speeds are so high. Change to a climb that averages an Alpine 7% that is also irregular in gradient and several sprinters will be in trouble.

Supersize me

Super Poggio
In my preview of the Poggio last week I mentioned the “Super Poggio”. At the top of the Poggio instead of turning left to descend, you can turn right and start an actual mountain pass, the Passo Ghimbegna. Once over the top you could loop back to Sanremo. But this would add to the distance – the climb is 18km – and change the race completely.

The sprinters’ classic
Race organisers RCS have a sister race, Il Lombardia and this caters for climbers. Sanremo is the only monument where sprinters can have a say, there’s nothing wrong in that. Especially as the climbs mean other riders have to try so hard to get an advantage. As listed above in recent years we’ve had a good balance of attacks winning and sprint finishes. What is good is that the possibility of a sprint finish is never certain, it is only until after the Poggio that we know what might happen. In other words audiences must tune in to find out what will happen.

An Italian win?
I suspect the organisers would like an Italian winner. Bias? You bet and this is normal, after all this is why the Poggio was included half a century ago. The irony though is that Italy has some very promising sprinters with Elia Viviani and Andrea Guardini. What chance the organisers talk about scrapping the Poggio if Guardini is dropped next year?

The race starts in Milan and finishes in Sanremo but everything else can change. Only you have to wonder why there is talk of modifying the route, the finish is thrilling, high TV drama where you rarely know the winner until the finish line is in sight. Surely the finish of the race is near perfect?

38 thoughts on “Why change the Milan-Sanremo route?”

  1. I’m in total agreement.
    Currently the race is completely unpredictable and utterly fascinating right to the last metre.
    As you rightly point out – the mix of ‘types’ winning this race is balanced perfectly.

    What is interesting though is analysing what’s prompted this current call for change. It seems that everyone has been debating it from the moment we reached the bottom of the Poggio!

    For me, it seems that it’s prompted by the ‘feeling’ that Cancellara should have been able to win as he was the strongest on the day. I can sympathise with this view (as I can sympathise with Fabien), but surely the logical extension of ‘strongest wins’ would be to line everyone up on Watt Bikes and take power readings.

    The complexity of the peloton ebb and flow, the myriad rider ‘types’ and the ever present wind resistance and what makes the finish of MSR so fascinating. It was made even more complicated by the team structure and the Nibali/Sagan Gerrans/Goss factor.
    For the informed viewer, it was pure heaven trying to work out all the possible combinations.

  2. If the Milan-San Remo route is changed, the teams contesting will change riders and tactics accordingly. If it becomes a climbers’ race then Gerrans may well have been the protected rider with Cameron Meyer looking after breaks; Radioshack might even have risked a Schleck (ROFL).
    If this year’s route had been different, perhaps with the finish at the bottom of the descent, then no-one would have let Nibali, Gerrans & Cancellara get away where they did. The breaks would have begun in earnest before the Poggio climb.
    So the only change which will ensure an Italian victory is to limit entries to Italian riders (and the race lose its WorldTour status). Not likely, and nor is an Italian victory.

  3. there’s a thread over on gerard vroomens blog currently running, and i must say i subscribe to his “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” view. ultimately, it could just be RCS doing what Italians do best – marketing themselves.

    i would add though that i think there is an awful lot riding on this years RVV “experiment” with the more classic route changed to now incorporate some circuits. it will be interesting what sort of winner this change could now throw up, because arguably it opens the race up to more riders….

  4. In the summer of 1996 I had the pleasure of riding Cipressa and Poggio alongside (later behind) 1996 MS winner Gabriele Colombo on a training ride including Maurio Gianetti and a few locals. His love for the race was as outspoken as any Italien rider. He knew he had just had his moment of his career, and his skinny and somewhat probably at that time EPO boosted physique was a pleasure to watch pedaling uphill, flying downhill and cruising unbelievable fast through the traffic of San Remo, as only an pure pro bike rider can do without getting hurt. My guess is that whatever changes the race will undergo – the love for this race will never fade, and riders will undoubtedly adapt to it in the hunt for glory.

  5. Kris: see http://biciturismo.cycling.it/ricerca_itinerari/scheda_itinerari.asp?id=310 and I’ll add a link to the text above. It is a proper mountain pass and note “Super Poggio” is my label, nobody calls it that. It requires low gears and suits climbers. I cannot see it being used in this race.

    Instead if the organisers wanted more climbing the main coastal road has many roads that go up into the hills and mountains that rise from the coast, similar to the Cipressa and Poggio.

  6. I never knew it changed so much. What is the wider problem here, is the race not getting sponsor funding or TV audience data is getting bad?

  7. El Gato de La Cala: thanks for the anecdote, it is a beautiful race.

    Chris: I don’t know. Angelo Zomegnan, a man who knows a thing or three about race organisation, blogged about weak audiences for the Strade Bianche the other day at (http://ilsegnodizom.gazzetta.it/2012/03/12/perche-il-ciclismo-ha-bisogno-di-aldo-grasso/). TV is a big factor, if not the big factor that drives everything. See how ASO and RCS have adjusted the Tour and Giro alike to make racing suit TV schedules and create drama, eg the new shorter stages of the Tour last summer or the “scary” Monte Crostis climb+descent that was scrapped in the Giro at the last minute.

  8. Perhaps rather than a case of ever changing this is more a case of some things never change – an Italian didn’t win so change the route until one does?

    From my point of a view it’s a wonderfully balanced route that produced an exciting race.

  9. I believe the finish line today is not rewarding any attacks on the Poggio (although Gerrans Group was not caught before the finish). But we can see a great climb and descent of Poggio if the finish line is brought back towards the end of Poggio descent…. and V. Nibali would win if this is what RCS wants…

  10. Actually the Cipressa change could be nice, 7% is steep enough, but since there’s quite a bit of flat after that, sprinters would still have a chance. Probably not Cavendish, but Freire and the like could be still in the game.
    Also a good chance for a longish break to form.

    ‘Super Poggio’, err, no thanks, that would be an interesting race, but a totally different one.

  11. @sarperg as you say yourself the group stayed away after just such an attack on the Poggio. I would suggest Gerrans considers this rewarding enough 🙂

  12. If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.
    The current finish leads to unpredictable race wins, where no single style of rider can win.
    If the change is all about getting Italians to win, then to my mind the organisers should look at Spain where they want Spanish winners at all costs and how that has worked out for races there, whereas the TdF has not had a French winner in years and how that has worked out for them!

  13. Interesting discussion… One interpretation is that RCS is trying to boost chances of an Italian winner, and that proposed changes to Cipressa could be considered a way to engineer a Nibali victory. However with up and coming sprinters like Guardini and Viviani, they could do greater harm to that aim long-term. Would Cipollini have won with a tougher Cipressa? Sean Kelly’s view is interesting; he states that if the finish now was the location when he won in 1992, he and Argentin could well have been caught. http://www.velonation.com/News/ID/11413/Kelly-sees-merit-in-one-of-proposed-changes-to-Milan-Sanremo-route.aspx Given the fact that edition was seen as one of the best, his logic is worth considering.

  14. I’ve been biased against MSR due to its sprinter-friendly layout, but the results of recent years have been unquestionable. In the last ten years the race has been won by Mark Cavendish, Fabian Cancellara, and Paolo Bettini. Vincenzo Nibali, a climber good enough to win a Grand Tour, has made crucial attacks in each of the last two years. What more diversity could you ask for?

    If the race came down to a bunch sprint every year, it would be boring, so I understand the sponsors concern. But it’s not ever clear that a sprint will take place, sometimes until the very end.

    The very idea that both climbers and sprinters could be equal favorites in a race is astonishing, and unheard of anywhere else in cycling. Why mess with that?

  15. Gotta agree with Duluth here, why mess with it? There’s something going on here that smells of panic and short-term thinking…which is kind of what you get when the single-minded, less than diplomatic genius types are tossed aside or simply retire, and get replaced by group-think. How the heck did Bugno or Chiappucci win if the course is so wrong for Italians? Shane points out the short-term thinking here well, they could end up hurting the chances of an Italian victory instead of helping them. I hope they pour themselves a grappa and sit back and contemplate what they’re considering for awhile before messing around with La Primavera. As someone else pointed out, Vroomen’s blog post on this subject is spot-on from this old-fart’s point of view. I’m afraid Giro 2012 isn’t going to be too interesting, especially if you’re an Italian in the south where they’re NOT going, though the racing itself could (I hope) make up for the poorly thought-out route choice.

  16. wait…for the last 2 years in a row an attack has worked on the poggio and in fact last year’s break was the who’s who of current uber champions and, there was a sprinter in the mix as well, best of both worlds. If you ask me Milano San Remo’s route is perfect now. Nibs and co just need to try that itsy bit harder. It gets down to seconds after 7 hours and it’s a nail biting race to watch. It that not what we want to see?

    Thats has to be the grappa talking!

  17. I watched the 92 MSR video yesterday and would love to know the time difference from the top of the Poggio to a point on the road where the 92 finish line was for Kelly and Cancellara. Purely academic I know but would be interesting all the same given todays hype about machinery and aerodynamics etc.

  18. We discussed this last week. Interesting subject.

    Although many fans don’t like to see sprinters win unless they are their compatriots, the important thing about San Remo is balance. The balance beteween long-distance specialists and punchers, nuanced by their sprinting capacities. And the evolution of materials, surfaces and preparation does indeed alter the balance. If you look at the list of winners, there wasn’t a single so-called “pure sprinter” until Cipollini (whose victory was a shock, even an offence, to a lot of fans) and the blood-doping years (and no, Van Looy, Van Steenbergen, De Bruyne, or Poblet were not pure sprinters, all of them could climb their bit, win in the Ardennes, make the top-10 in a GT, or win small stage races).

    Although you’re right, this shouldn’t turn into a Lombardia (although it would be good to have more races that, and let’s hope the Classique des Alpes and the Vuelta a los Puertos come back to life some day soon) or even a L-B-L. Milan-San Remo must remain what it has always been. It’s mainly about distance and endurance: the prototype winner should be a hardman à la De Vlaeminck, Merckx or Kelly (you don’t need to rediscover the (right) wheel), who can win in different scenarios. It shouldn’t be impossible for “pure sprinters” (on an exceptional day) to win, just like an inspired pure climber à la Chiappucci could also win it with a bit of luck (something that simply cannot happen nowadays), but both “pure specialists” victories should be unlikely.

    The race is not as unpredictable now as it used to be (this year we were saved by some riders’ determination to put on a good show to the detriment of their chances of winning). In order to maintain the balance, the mileage must gradually increase (in the same proportion as materials improve). We don’t need steeper climbs, what we could benefit from is 25 or 50 kms more, so that everyone is even more tired when they get to the Cipressa. It would also be good to break the 300km taboo, which is anachronic.

    As for as drawing the finish line closer to the Poggio, I don’t think it would make such a huge difference, but it could also compensate the current pro-sprinter bias, and make attacks on the Cipressa more likely to yield victories, so I would vote yes.

    But the answer is mainly “make the race longer”.

  19. Good stuff, so it seems that the only thing that the RCS wants to “fix” is the TV ratings and/or print media coverage with the associated ad revenue. The organizers feel that the way to accomplish this is with more Italians in the mix late in the race or better yet winning. I’d think that having another great race would be the priority but have to defer to the guys in the business. And I agree that it is rather pointless anyway, the riders do indeed make the race, regardless of their team or nationality.

    Having said that I am not old to reject change out of hand, sometimes they do actually improve things. And I must thank and acknowledge the organizers for the quality website with the streaming video which allows us to watch the race live in the US.

  20. Just to echo the comments that the race might end in a bunch sprint… but we can never be sure. What is boring is seeing a team lead a train across the plains of northern France or Italy towards a certain sprint finish, the predictability makes many switch off and we can see, for example, ASO are trying more uphill finishes in the first week of the Tour. In Milan-Sanremo we have a finish that, in part thanks to the 300km, gives several types of rider a chance.

    If you listen to the Velocast “This Week in Cycling History” podcast there’s a good anecdote on Sean Kelly’s extra motivation to chase down Moreno Argentin in 1992.

  21. Bundle-you say a guy like Chiappucci winning is “something that simply cannot happen nowadays”. which, since I’m writing this, you must figure I disagree with. What in your opinion has changed since the early 90’s when “El Diablo” won? The teams have the same number of riders, the route’s pretty much the same, the bicycles are pretty much the same (as in ya still gotta pedal ’em) etc. Much as I dislike radio-controlled racing I can’t honestly claim it would be the reason a win like that is no longer possible, so I’m wondering what do you think is so different nowadays?

  22. To me the bigger question is why other races which always end in a bunch sprint (Kuurne-Brussles-Kuurne for example) do nothing to change their parcours.

  23. You can bet if MSR were in Switzerland the finish would be at the bottom. Anyone remember the TdSuisse Fabian won? As flat a mini-GT as there ever was.
    Also, if FC doesn’t make the front group last weekend Gerro & Nibali get swarmed by the line, possibly resulting in a Sagan win. Ho hum, another boring sprint finish, despite Cav’s best effort to sabotage it by eating the entire pre-race buffet, including the table.

  24. Larry T. : I don’t think we will ever see again something like Chiappucci’s 180km breakaway victory, but Nibali is similar to him, and he could never have made it in front to the finish line if not behind someone like Cancellara (the one guy in the world who can keep a whole chasing peloton at bay). Alone, he would get caught 10 times out of 10, unless there are crashes in the peloton or something like that. Why?
    Well… Why in the TdF, 25 years ago, you had a maximum of 4-5 mass sprints, and why nowadays all of the flat stages end up systematically in a sprint? How come do we see 50-strong pelotons on top of the Tourmalet? I think the attitude of riders has become much more risk-averse and much less offensive, but there are also material aspects: radios, weight-control (both the bike’s and the rider’s), improved aerodynamics, heartrate and power-meters, better roads, lots of things have changed, all of them contributing to make pro cycling more predictable and probably less demanding.

  25. And Jim: it’s a bit of an off-topic, but the 2009 TdSuisse was much more mountainous than this year’s Pars-Nice. It was not Cancellara’s fault if no one attacked him properly, or went for the time bonuses like Fabian did.

  26. Bundle, yes for sure. He was out to win and, with a little help from the locals, did. I don’t begrudge him for that. S’matter of fact, it’s pretty damn impressive and one of the reasons I’m a huge fan.

    Mendrisio was another.

  27. Bundle:

    Well – I think race radios for one are a reason for the # of bunch sprints. My theory: the art of the sprinter, and their dedicated team has created a number of teams with one goal in mind…chasing down any breaks to get their man into the bunch sprint. When your only glory is flatter stage wins, coupled with technology (radios allowing for more precise timing of catching the break), and you get a peloton much more capable of chasing down break-away artists. I happen to think too many historically flat 1-day races have still yet to adapt to this.

  28. Bundle-thanks, you made some valid points but I still think of it as something like a claim that because nobody from earth has been to the moon recently, it’s now impossible. Unlikely for all the reasons you listed, but perhaps not impossible even today. I can dream, no? There have quite often been “courses for horses” throughout recent cycling history as in the infamous ’84 Giro route, supposedly tailored for Moser or the awful Giro 2009 made for BigTex, but I hope the organizers do less, not more of this in the future. Trying to fiddle around with a classic route just to come up with a popular winner to jack up the TV ratings throws the history and passion of cycling out the window just for some short-term profits. This same short-term, greedy mentality is behind doping and that’s certainly not helping the sport in recent times. I say leave MSR alone.

  29. @Larry T, the 2009 Giro was a great race, what are you talking about? Right down to Menchov crashing in the final minutes. Organizers didn’t have to tailor a route for Armstrong, like, ever. If anything, it was great to see him getting spanked and hanging onto wheels on Blockhaus.

  30. As usual RC, we disagree. Menchov beats DiLuca. Two less-than-stellar characters in my book. I was in Rome for the finale and there wasn’t much excitement in the atmosphere. As Wikipedia said “The route received a small amount of criticism for failing to include any well-known and especially difficult climbs such as the Passo del Mortirolo or Monte Zoncolan, instead including stages featuring multiple climbs with lesser ascents.” Plenty of folks think the route was a sop to BigTex, not making him race over anything super steep which might make him look less than a superstar in his comeback. On the other hand, I DID like the chrono stage in the Cinque Terre …we incorporated some of it into a tour we call Vineyards to the Sea.

  31. RC- sorry you’re unimpressed, but my response was to show it wasn’t just MY opinion and rather than “pile on” you with every link to every criticism of La Corsa Rosa 2009 I could find, I included only that very generic quote. I believe there’s a reference to this in Herbie Sykes’ excellent Maglia Rosa but I don’t have a copy handy here to verify it for you, sorry.

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