The Sanremo Paradox

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.

Claudio Chiappucci

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.

Tour of Flanders Kristoff and Terpstra

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.

82 thoughts on “The Sanremo Paradox”

  1. Some years, it can feel like a very long race. But I still always watch. With the shorter distance at the bottom of the final descent, non-sprinters need to attack before the top of the Poggio. And the more of a GC-type rider you are the earlier up the Poggio you should attack, in order to drop inferior climbers.
    I’m tipping Nibali this year: he’s in form, he’s a brilliant descender and he’s usually willing to attack.
    I think they managed to cover every feasible stereotypically Italian look with those three men.

    • There are quite a few good descenders in the field who aren’t sprinters – Nibali, Cancellara, Sagan, Gilbert – so you’d think an attack towards the top of the Poggio involving 2 or 3 of those would have a very good chance of sticking. Especially when you consider that the first 3 appear to be bang in form. Sagan appears to have realised this year that he can’t just hang on for sprints, I definitely think that he’ll go on the Poggio and I’d back him to stay away. You can bet van Avarmeat will follow him, and probably Stybar too. I can’t see Kwiatkowski sitting in for a sprint either. So, to conclude, I think the winner this year will come from an attack close to the top of the Poggio and involve enough riders from the top teams to stay away, as Katusha will probably have to chase alone. At the moment you’d have to put your money on someone pipping Sagan into second.

    • Not a bad shout and I was thinking along similar lines until I had a look at the weather forecast for Sanremo. A bit of a headwind (circa 15 kmph) along the coast which may make staying out front solo a tough job?
      I think we can probably rely on Nibali to still have a shot though, but I fear he could drag a select group with him and get out-gunned on the finish.
      ps I would like to point out that this above statement is entirely dependant on Italian meteorology expertise (*cough cough*) and I can take no responsibility for weather events turning out otherwise.

      • Ecky, the tragedy is that more or less all the known Italian weather forecasts were absolutely right (they’re usually quite good, indeed).
        The *unknown* or *imaginary* ones (I wouldn’t dare to say “made up”) were the problem.

    • Has “The Shark” said he’s IN? Yesterday on Italian TV he said he was thinking about it after earlier saying he would not be there this year or any year since Le Manie was no longer part of the course.

    • It was only added by accident because of roadworks/a landslide on the coastal road. It then served a purpose for the race for several years but I think it could not be added back because of further roadworks on the climb.

      • We took clients over Le Manie in June 2015 – there were no road work issues at that time. To me a bigger tragedy is the new Turchino tunnel, a modern, two-lane affair that bypasses the classic, one-lane galleria of tradition. Meanwhile the bust of Girardengo sits forlornly at the old tunnel entrance and the hotel/ristorante up there is out-of-business as nobody passes that way these days. 🙁

    • I think RCS chickened out. The Pompeiana idea brought howls from the sprinters so they blamed road repairs to backtrack on their decision to include it instead of Le Manie…then didn’t bother to put Le Maine back in so the sprinters would stop complaining and show up. Now you have guys like Nibali saying they’d show up if Le Manie was put back in, but other than eliminate the Manx Missile one time I don’t know that it made much difference when it was included. While I realize that Poggio and Cipressa are relatively recent additions, the current course is fine with me. This race has a great history full of interesting ways of playing out most years. W La Classicissima!! Let the REAL racing season begin!! W La Primavera!!

          • I can’t agree.
            The Manie offered a huge opportunity to create tactical pressure on the sprinters and their teams. Which doesn’t mean that such an opportunity was always made the most of by the other teams.
            Still, you can see that with Le Manie a more selected finale was more common (not as in *automatic*) than without that climb.
            And, in any case, it offered something a bit more interesting to be watched with 100 kms or so to go, not only itself, but because of what was going to happen after it. Now we’ve got a rather static situation in that phase of the race.

            They didn’t remove it because of roadworks, it’s just that the sprinters’ teams have got more importance for RCS, in this race, and… they obviously didn’t like Le Manie.

            A Sanremo is “big” (according to RCS) if it has got big sprinters on the startlist, because it’s going to be hard for anyone else to win, whatever the course. They hated to have winners like Ciolek or Goss (and they didn’t like at all Gerrans, either… in 2012 he was simply a stage-hunter for the GTs as many many others: being already 32 years old, nobody expected him to become, from then on, a future Liège winner or a Worlds pretender, he barely had any serious result in top one-day races!).
            RCS became more and more angry because the race was beautiful but it was delievering “under par” winners: when you’re in a selected group in a frantic finale, the most probable thing is that the “weakest” guys are those “allowed” to stay on the wheels, or maybe they are just those “who don’t care to risk to lose”, since if they worked, they’d lose 100% anyway. Or they’re simply wheelsuckers 😛
            Whatever the reason, it didn’t look like it was pure coincidence, it looked like a pattern, and RCS didn’t like it.

            No need to say that I don’t agree with the RCS POV I’ve explained above, since I’d love a more open Sanremo with Le Manie; and I’m also sure that the sprinters would find their way to the victory all the same, maybe when the weather was a bit more favourable to them (as it was in 2009), or when they can hold on in a twenty some group like Freire in 2010.

            That said, part of the Sanremo’s charme IMHO is that it’s really *so* hard to snatch it to the sprinters: that’s what makes other victories a bit special – which means that this peculiar magic wouldn’t work if reduced-group finishes were more common. I believe that some 3 no-bunch-sprint victories every 10 years or so is fine; if this wasn’t happening for a decade, you’d really need to change the formula.

      • Come on Larry, change the record please. We all know your staunch views on old world vs new world bike racing but you’re surely baiting by suggesting this marks the ‘real’ start of the season. If so, you got me. If the ‘real’ season is as good as what’s been served up so far then we’re in for a treat.

        • Hugh – Not baiting anyone, sorry. Just celebrating the start of what I think is the real season. A suggestion: use your scroll-down function on whatever device you use to read the comments and simply pass by the ones from people you don’t like. I do this with all of them from ANONYMOUS and his family.
          Gabriele – I had no real objection to Le Manie’s inclusion but pretty much “the best man won” in any case, so the idea that it would open the race up to climbers to get away fell rather flat. But it would seem Nibali thinks it would suit him better so there’s certainly plenty of views that match yours. W La Primavera!

    • I thought he went clear on the Cipressa. Turns out he did but was caught and went again on the Poggio. So you’re right and we have to go even further back for a successful Cipressa move, 1996 and Gabriele Colombo it seems. I’ll fix the text above as a result.

      • So Il Grillo launched not one but TWO uphill attacks after >250 k’s of racing and managed to stay away till the arrivo? Different times alltogether…

        • The sort of things that happened every day in cycling before the arrival of *sport science*.
          Well, they went on happening even afterwards, from time to time, but it became harder and less common, for sure. Which makes Bettini’s victory even more deserved.

  2. People moan about Milan-Sanremo but I think it might be my favourite race of the year. You get just about every top rider in it barring the out and out gc men (i.e. Contador and Froome), its in Italy and it usually involves a spectacular finish. There’s not much to dislike as far as I can see.

    • Who moans about it? Fans line up to tell each other how much they love it, how exciting it is, how the building tension kills them.

      Candyfloss cycling. Seven hours of nothing, ten minutes of action. All over before you know it.

      And nobody knows who’s going to win. Will it be a GC rider? A Classics specialist? A sprinter? The excitement, the tension, the suspense.

      It’ll likely be won in a reduced-field sprint. It usually is. The stats say so.

      Popcorn cycling, just like the reality-TV shows. All surface and talk, no substance.

      • Popcorn cycling? 7 hours of 40kph is nothing/candyfloss cycling!?! HA! I’m sorry. 40kph…. for 7 hours…

        Please go try that.. you’ll appreciate how great this race is after 20 minutes!

        • As an amateur cyclist I can certainly appreciate how impressive it is to ride 40+kph for over 7 hours. But that doesn’t mean it’s thrilling viewing! I’m very much looking forward to Saturday but I doubt I’ll set aside any time for the the first 250km. The distance is there to tire the riders’ legs, not to provide gripping entertainment all the way.

          • I agree with John Waters’ caricature, except that I like it anyway (although by far my least favourite of the 5 monuments). It certainly could use a much less sprinter- and teamwork-friendly course. Not make it into an Ardennes classic, but really put some serious climbing early on, to get rid of anyone interested in a controlled race.

  3. While watching the fabulous last stage of P-N I was thinking to myself I wouldn’t bother to watch the potentially boring and predictable MSR. I’m not so sure of it today. Maybe the weather is good this year and the familiar scenery looks nice. But in general I must admit that if there is one grand race I’d have to miss during the season this one would be it.

  4. I’m not surprised a break never makes it. The length eliminates this possibility. Could you imagine 250k in a 3/4 man group. That removes one option completely. Therefore it has to be a sprint or late attack. The figure shows 8/12 times it is a bunch sprint, suggesting the length further pushes tactics towards riding conservatively in the bunch. As described by inrng the length of the race is the deciding factor, not the small climbs.

  5. Hi guys,

    first time I’ve been writing, I’m italian and sorry if my english writing is not as good as it should be.

    just wanna to point out that first pic, the one with representing “fraz. Poggio” has stuck 2 Lega Lombarda / Nord stickers and i don’t love them at all to be seen on our INRNG community and I think that this astonishing cycling page with its marvelous public and contributors do not deserve such an ugly pic.

    Its not matter of politics but more a social issue as Lega Lombarda/Nord supporters are mainly known to be racist and homophobic and so is the Party they are voting!

    i wrote and i haven’t read all article yet and not even all the comments from readers…now I’m gonna go back to the pleasure of reading….

    • The Lega are visible in cycling races, often waving their flags on the end of giant poles at bike races, as if blocking our view of the riders is going to encourage support.

      The sign is actually on another route into Poggio, the village.

    • I was on an Italian cycling forum some years ago and they (Lega guys) were trying to recruit people to wave those flags… taking advantage of cycling passion, they were trying to convince people (whatever their political attitude) to receive logistical support in order to stand there, near the finish line, going on waving as if there was any sort of *popular* backing for the party. Nobody accepted, at least publicly, at least on that forum.
      The Lega has been long down in electoral terms, but it has always been *saved* by the strong support it receives from other political parties and media groups. I still remember when they barely had the number to sit in the Parliament but nonetheless Berlusconi gave them several Ministries (he didn’t even need them to keep his majority, at the time).
      Again and again, they’d end up losing the occasional electoral grasp on that 4-5% of people who may still be voting them, but they always find some big politician keen on flirting with them, or some top newspaper which is ready to give huge space to whatever nonsense they happen to be uttering. And I don’t think that’s pure chance nor desire to sell more, since in Italy the press isn’t a business as much as a political tool.

      • @Gabriele

        I do really appreciate your words, you look like a big connoisseur of Italian politics and what you wrote about is true…
        Didn’t know about what you found out on some forum but I recall Ballan’s victory in that Worlds hosted by Varese, Hometown of La Lega founder and Homus Maximo Bossi…
        Whole event was desired, wanted and finally obtained by people highly connected to La Lega and of course I remember all the Rosa Camuna flags waving in green and white….a really poor image for italian cycling….

    • @ Daniele
      Secondo me le differenze sono quel che si unisce.

      I cannot forget how in the Giro di Lombardia of 2015 the beautiful image of Vincenzo Nibali winning while wearing il tricolore was spoiled by the Lega Nord flags flapping in the background.

      • @GeorgeY
        Le differenze sono quel che Ci unisce.

        I remember that and i remember of friend of mine, we were watching racing on TV, he said: that’s what we’ve got, in the north all the flags from all over the world and here at home we got them (La Lega flags and people hanging their flags…)

  6. Love love love this race

    As usual, I’ll be walking up the Poggio in the afternoon to my favourite spot above the greenhouses, perch on a wall with my back to the sea, listen to the inevitable radio commentary via another roadside fan, enjoy the anticipation building up…and wait for the race to arrive…

  7. Watching highlights of last year’s race on Eurosport now. Great to see Thomas attacking on the Poggio and the pack chasing him down. Looking forward to this years edition!

  8. I like the analogy to the Master Chef etc. programs, good find. This is the kind of race you have to record, and watch the final 5k 10 times to make sense of everything that happens there.

  9. I think the main feature of MSR is distance rather than the climbs. 290 kms plus is a different type of challenge. Most pros know how they expect their legs to feel on a good day up until 250 kms. Beyond that distance, a different stamina and energy conversation strategy is required. Although the final three climbs appear fairly straight forward to fresh legs. After 270 kms the challenge is completely different.

    I look forward to Saturday.

    • I was thinking the same. I also wonder if the fact that this is now the only race left of this distance is why there are not breakaways that stick. In the past there were a number of races of this length or longer so riders were perhaps more able to find the reserves physically to stay away.
      Obviously team tactics have changed but maybe also this also to do with the length of races.

    • @ BC I had the privilege of talking to a pro a few years ago and my take home message was that the one day classics are way much harder than three week tours: In stage races the peloton will often relax on the flats making it easy for almost everyone. One day classics on the other hand are hard from the start with very few chances for respite.

  10. Milano-San Remo is certainly a slog.
    It’s a race that really tests the stamina of the viewer; you have to be watchful for hours and yet still be alert for the final run-in –especially if you are watching a pirate feed, which will usually freeze at a key moment. So, depending on your race set-up, you need all of the great keyboard handling or even supreme zapper handling skills and maybe even a second screen to overcome any mechanical in order to stay with the final sprint. And all this after enduring the endless droning of the commentators’ inanities; not to mention the intensity of the wife’s steely, silent indifference. It’s a pressure cooker.

    Le Manie was a bit of a destroyer to be jettisoned. This year, however, there is something new – Gaviria. I shall be watching him to see how he goes. Ettix already have a megastar with him. They say they are easing him in gently but this monster of a race is only his second WT outing. The fact that he lines up at MSR following hard on Tirreno-Adriatico and the gruelling World Track Championships testifies to his powers of recovery. He has already shown as a double world champion that he can do things on a bike that Kittel can only dream of. He is better than Cavendish was at his age, I think. But the big boys are certainly out in force in this field. Michael Matthews, G v Avermaert, Kristoff, Sagan, Valverde, Cancellara. Graviria’s own team isn’t shabby but he will do well to last the course, beat the Cipressa and stay handily rather than contest the finish. Anyway he’s the talent I want to watch.

    I reckon an early attack on the Poggio with a breakaway fast descent to the finish is unlikely.

    The weather looks to be shaping up to be kind to the race this year and yes it looks like they will be riding into the wind along the coast. But 2 days out is a lifetime in weather forecasting these days. Where I live seaweed is still better a forecaster than any of the many genial idiots giving us forecasts on our TV screens.

    • I love this: ‘the wife’s steely, silent indifference’. Get her to do a PhD – really soaks up their time.
      Another (yet another) impressive thing about Gaviria is how he came out of the track cycling WC compared with Cavendish: Cavendish felt unable to sprint in T-A, whilst Gaviria was winning a stage (and with a very long sprint). I still doubt he’ll cope with the distance, but interesting to see.

      • Not only the distance for Gaviria but long(er) lasting effort towards the finish. See T-A stage 6.
        Actually, both Etixx picks for MSR blew up that day.

          • Havent had a chance to see a lot from that stage but as far as I could guess Trentin was there to do the dirty work for Gaviria and Styby (of course all of the guys had a fair share of work – except GVA). The same scheme applies to Tinkoff. Yet Sagan was able to pull out a huge acceleration in the end.
            We’ll be wiser on Sat evening.

          • Actually, I’d have thought that Trentin would be EQS’s best bet. They’re apparently going for Stybar and Gaviria, but I’d have thought that Tretin has a better sprint than one and more stamina than the other.

  11. My final comment on this MSR post – I promise! I sort of understand those who complain that nothing happens until the last few kms, but to me it’s like football (soccer) in that not that much happens (as in scoring) but something COULD happen at any minute so you’re kind of on the edge of your seat on the couch the entire time, just-in-case.. As the kilometers go by, the drama increases, just as in a football match as the clock ticks ever closer to the end of 90 minutes. Excitement builds and builds and builds until it explodes across the line into a big celebration of the winner. Add in the often stunning scenery and the great contrast of the often cloudy, damp Lombardia/Piemonte vs the sunny Ligurian coastline and you have some great TV. I’m not so sure I want it to be turned into yet another race for mountain goats, aren’t there enough of those already?
    Daniele – I don’t think you need to apologize for the Lega Nord. Pretty much everyone knows they’re just a fringe party of racist xenophobes like the National Front in France or the supporters of Donald Trump in the USA.

  12. A very good appraisal of why San Remo is a must watch.

    I shall be glued to the whole of Eurosport’s coverage as the tension notches up. Too many dismiss San Remo as a race you only need to bother watching for the last 10 or 15 minutes. It’s the almost creeping dread of what might happen as the climax nears that makes it such a special race. The kilometres tick down, not much happening and you’re still no nearer as to who might win. I always liken it to a day’s play in a Test cricket match: the overs tick down, not much seemingly happening but you know something is coming and then – BANG! – it does. Like life, really.

    And it is one of the few races where sprinters, classics riders and GT riders all think they have a chance.

    There might, to the eye, be more action in Flanders and Roubaix (wonderful races, too) but San Remo is the one where the tension builds and builds and builds all the way to the finish line. Either way, the three weeks between San Remo and Roubaix are the best part of the cycling year.

    • I can’t help but be drawn in by a cricket analogy…

      I think a full day watching San Remo is even more for the purists than a full day watching a Test match, because the explosive action in a Test match is *almost* as likely to happen at any point in the day (similarly for a football match). Whereas, barring freak crashes, San Remo is a real slow burn – you won’t get anything explosive happening early on. But (big but!), it is all still happening – some team leaders are being well looked after, some have to face a bit of wind. Who’s had a mechanical and had to chase back on?

      And that sort of fine detail is definitely for the purists, and that is a lovely thing (because a casual fan can still watch the last bit and enjoy the excitement, maybe bringing the purist a drink in return for a precis of the last 7hrs)

  13. I think the break never sticks because the break has never stuck. Teams know this, and focus strategy on a (possibly reduced) bunch finish. It could stick, but it would need to be fairly large, and have no obvious threats. You’d need a dark horse in unusually good form – like a pre-Vuelta Doumoulin, or Cummings.

  14. Each to their own but give me a northern classic any day.

    To me, MSR is a little like a flat Tour stage with a big climb at the end, or Fleche Wallonne. The bit before the end is relevant, of course, but rarely in a way that seems to make much difference.

  15. well one thing is for sure, at some inconsequential point in the race Sky will hit the front and burn up 3 of their guys for no obvious gain. Then the real action will start…

    • If they’re not riding on the front they don’t know what to do with themselves, it’s what they’ve been trained to do.

      Sky on the front and Sagan finishing second, you can guarantee at least this much.

  16. Spartacus is the sentimental favorite for sure, but something tells me that Geraint Thomas (with tremendous form coming out of P-N) might take a solo flyer a la Sean Kelly-like for the breakaway win. What a great race! Bring it on, baby! 🙂

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