The Sanremo Paradox

Peter Sagan leads on the Poggio having blown the field off his back wheel. Michał Kwiatkowski and Julian Alaphilippe are chasing and there’s just 6km to go. 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 often dependent on events in the last five minutes. Why all the hours of airtime when surely you could just tune in for the final 10 minutes? All the details make the Poggio’s ascent and descent so thrilling.

Poggio 2012

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 where Peter Sagan’s attack last year with seven minutes to go counts as one of the longest moves.

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.

Claudio Chiappucci

We have to go back to 1996 to find a winner, Gabriele Colombo, who went clear on the Cipressa. For the long range move 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 races. Already this season Marc Soler went with 47km to win Paris-Nice; Romain Bardet and Wout van Aert jumped with 49km to go before Tiesj Benoot later bridged on his way to winning the Strade Bianche. Typically the best races have action all throughout the last hour.

Sanremo does too but it’s subtle. While next to nothing can happen during a dull stage of the Dubai Tour, there’s a lot to look for with two hours to go in Sanremo, who is sitting back, which teams are chasing, how is the breakaway coping? You’re looking for clues in a way that you wouldn’t in most other races. The race is so long 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 struggles with. 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 and if you wonder about Filippo Pozzato and Matt Goss they won when they were rated as world class riders; Gerald Ciolek took a brave win on a filthy day but arguably proves the point because a modest rider won on the day the course had been shortened.

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 four 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 much of modern TV and ratings hits are 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 viewing an inane 40 minutes of someone rustling up a soufflé or watching the paint dry during a home renovation by catching the last two minutes to see who won the episode but of course the drama is in the production, the build-up. 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. Granted it’s a lot longer and less structured than a 40 minute slot but 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. It’s not the race to tell a newcomer to watch but look for the details during the live coverage and there’s something rewarding about watching the race unfold and feeling the tension rise as the race approaches the Poggio, the attacks fly on the climb, the fraught toboggan-run descent into Sanremo and the final sprint.

  • This is a quick retread of a past post, updated with new statistics ahead of the race preview out on Friday morning.

28 thoughts on “The Sanremo Paradox”

  1. To what extent are you and other aficionados bewitched by the sublime scenery in the latter part of the race? This really is the least selective of all the monuments.

    • Oh no, that’s not true. That’s just your opinion. I think it’s just as high quality, especially when you remove Ciolek’s shortened and bus aided win.

      Compare the list of winners to all other monuments and World Champs, and you have a list that’s just as high quality. Plus, it’s far superior to any of the other one-day races.

      Milan San Remo shows that after 7-hours, only the top top riders can sprint fast enough to win. Look how toast Alaphillipe was last year, showing that he’s a clear step below Kwiat and Petr

      • What is up with this flag against Ciolek? Surely, he underperformed in comparison to the expectations he awoke after winning the German championship in his first pro year with 19 against the likes of Zabel und Co. My guess he did not cope to well with that pressure.
        But I am sure he would have won that year anyway. It was his first year in a non German team and the pressure on him was less so he could focus. He was never fitter than that year I guess and my pick for the race.
        Sure, he never became that top rider one had expected and as many of the other Sanremo winners were, but in my opinion he was no lesser rider than the formentioned Mr. Goss. Surely his stats are not worse.
        And to reduce his win solely to the reduction does not do him justice. Because following your logic, Cancellara or Chavanel for example shouldn’t been that exhausted as well and could have pushed harder over the Poggio than after a longer distance but he still managed to hang on unlike Cavendish and Kristoff. And he managed to beat Sagan who also should have been punchier than after the longer distance. Sure those are all more accomplished and better racers, but that was his day where for once his talent shone. I believe nothing had changed the outcome. And surely his win that day was no fluke.

        • It was mainly about the rest underrating him, that is, not even expecting him to take a turn or not feeling the need to attack him as the fastest wheel around. Which is a nice part of the game of cycling.

          However I still remember the huge promise the guy represented, but I’m not sure he underperformed out of media pressure only. It’s just not easy to become an accomplished pro, and people have the right to find the existential terms which they can cope with or which are more suited to them. Ask the new generations of the Moser family… 😉

        • I’m sorry, I don’t mean to attack Ciolek. I have a lot of respect for him and I’m glad he got this huge win. The one thing is though, throughout his career, he’s always been a minor step down from the top tier of riders.

          He’s a great pro and has had a great career, but I do disagree with you. I doubt the result would have been the same after the normal 300k. Many top riders have the form of their lives but still cannot handle 300k. It’s the same thing with the Omloop and Paris-Roubaix – the extra distance completely separates the riders.

          Matty Goss is another story altogether and it would take a long time to discuss him.

    • I don’t get the impression that Mr Ring necessarily buys into the romanticism around this race.

      His observation that the production team has to invent drama and narratives like some sort of Rorschach test speaks for itself.

      For what it’s worth I think MSR would benefit substantially if they wound back the clock and got rid of the Cipressa and Poggio. This would make it a bona fide sprinters classic and remove the sense of ambivalence these climbs give to the race’s identity.

      • The same old problem then, Italy’s chances of a win would probably be lower and so the TV audiences suffer, the race struggles. It’s why they looked briefly at a course with the climb to Pompeiana in order to make it a Nibali festival. Mother Nature didn’t like this and landslides blocked the descent so they reverted to the old course.

        For me MSR is real rather than than contrived drama of a cookery show, you can watch for hours but have to find satisfaction in looking for the small details or treat it like radio, something to have in the background.

        • As I showed many times before, it’s not about nationalism or landslides. Vegni *loves* the course as it is, and it’s his favourite race well over, say, Lombardia, and this is pretty much a case of a single person’s opinione making the difference in an otherwise balanced debate (lots of quotes on the subject by the man himself or explicit decisions which made that clear enough).
          Fans in Italy want the race changed (made harder, or with a shorter run from the end of the Poggio descent to the line) since the times of Cipollini or Petacchi. The Manie climb was the perfect solution – it’s not just me insisting a lot about that – but there’s no way they’ll have it back.

          By the way, making it a “pure sprinters classic” like it was “back in the days” is sheer nonsense. Sprinters can already win it, they just need to be good. And the race rarely was a sprinters thing – when it became more similar to that thanks to smoother roads, lighter bikes and whatever, well, it got changed.

  2. Great stuff. As a stats nerd, I love your chart of when the winning move goes. You could have had an alternative career as a data visualiser (instead of being a pro bike rider…?). Anyway, keep them coming!

  3. Another interesting stat is the climbing time on Poggio and cipressa. Both haven’t been beaten since 1995-1996, but for the poggio, we are getting close..

  4. Glad you put the pic of Cancellara / Gerrans / Nibali – because last year’s finish was almost identical.

    Alaphilippe played Nibali, Kwiatkowski was Gerrans and Sagan was Cancellara. If only Sagan had studied recent history he would have known that Fabian did all the work before Gerrans took the win.

    I’m backing Viviani this year – teams will be wise to a Poggio move. Sagan’s attack was stunning and everyone will work to prevent the same again.

    Also … oh look there’s a picture of Geraint on the floor.

    • I guess teams have always been wise to attacks on the Poggio. But being able to predict it and then being able to do something about it are different things. I think things are currently weighted in favour of a small bunch as there are so many top quality puncheurs now (counting Sagan as one, rather than a sprinter). That means a) the attacks will be of a high quality/wattage and b) less teams will be bothered to chase. The top riders in the race will be Sagan, van Avarmaet, Kwiatkowski, Gilbert, Alaphilippe, Nibali and on form possibly Benoot and Wellens. Possibly Valverde? All of these riders need to go somewhere before the finish straight. The only top top favourites who can’t do this are probably Demare and Kristoff.

      • “I think things are currently weighted in favour of a small bunch as there are so many top quality puncheurs now (counting Sagan as one, rather than a sprinter).”

        I agree with that, although if it does come down to a bunch sprint I fancy Demare. Might he even shock us all and go with the puncheurs over the top? He’s hinted at this capability in recent seasons beating Alaphillipe and Wellens in tough uphill finishes.

    • Alaphilipe could sit up on the last flat 1k as he had a sprinter team mate behind = Nibali did the same as Sagan was in chasing peloton (Sagan off cource won the peloton sprint).

      One difference. It was Nibali who did the ‘Sagan’ on Poggio back then, not Canchellara.

      Everyone is taking about Sagan, Alaphilipe and Kwiatkowsky as that trio will go clear again. And with Van Avermat and perhaps Gilbert as the dark horses.

      Nibali is there, and im pretty sure he will be the one who instigates the drama on either Cipressa or Poggio (this year he will have Colibrelli as the fast man behind)

    • It’s different to last year – less sprinters. I think Sagan will confidently wait for the sprint, or see who goes on Poggio and follow them (rather than be main protagonist). If his powder is still dry with a KM to go, i think he has the measure of Kristoff, Demare & Viviani.

      • Gaviria being out might make a difference to Sagan’s thinking as I think he’d have been a huge threat. Kittel is meant to be riding though isn’t he? And no-one will want to take him to the finale so the pace on the Poggio and Cipressa will be as mad as ever.

  5. Milan-Sanremo is pretty close to being my favourite race of the year, I cant think of one I prefer so I’ll say it is my favourite. Maybe the worlds trumps it when we get a good one. I love the slow burn nature of it, the scenery and the diverse start list. If you watch the whole television coverage the tension does build and those final attacks from the Cipressa onwards seem all the more exciting having had to wait for them, in a way since the beginning of October! I cant wait, I’ll be getting my training in early on Saturday so I can spend the afternoon on the sofa.

  6. I like Sagan as a rider, but I’m wondering if he is starting to let success go to his head. Reading his comments on Kwiatkowski’s win and how he “wouldn’t be happy to win like that”, I can’t help but remember the first time Sagan took a tour stage win. Which came after sitting in Cancellara’s wheel, refusing to do work and then beating him in the sprint.

    Or perhaps he just became wiser 🙂

    Thank you for the writeup. I love this race. You know not much is going to happen until the end, but you also know that those final 10 minutes are thrilling bike racing.

    • I don’t think it is letting success go to his head as much as feeling that he is in a position where how he wins is more important than how many he wins. He knows he’s bound to win many more races, so he can make arguments that the quality of the win is what matters.

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