Racing Milan Sanremo
Beginner's luck refers to the supposed phenomenon of novices experiencing disproportionate frequency of success or succeeding against an expert in a given activity. One would expect experts to outperform novices - when the opposite happens it is counter-intuitive, hence the need for a term to describe this phenomenon.
4 pm (ish), March 22nd, 2003 - I experienced the most amazing beginner’s luck - and I’ve known a few. It was my first Milan San Remo, which may seem surprising considering it had been arguably the biggest influence on my early years of road racing. To put it into perspective I’d already done three Tours de France and two Vueltas Espana, not to mention most of the other monuments and classics. It was a time of year that didn’t suit me, I’d always fall ill, with hindsight it was allergies. As I sit here and write that last sentence on March 21st, 2019 with a running nose and itchy throat I’m reminded of that same March curse I’d endured as a racer.
Milan is an industrial city, not in an LS Lowry revolution way, more the fact that a lot of work goes on there, it’s industrious in a modern way. It has a very functional, and for an Italian city, modern architecture. None of this makes it a pretty place to be of a morning on a cold weekend in March - the streets are dead, the city feels soulless. Worst of all, for the racers, it seems so fucking far from the palm trees and olive groves of San Remo and the Italian Riviera - and that’s why it’s special, we all know we’re about to start the longest race of the year. It’s daunting.
A few things to understand about MSR - it’s the easiest monument to finish - it’s one of the hardest to win - it’s the most tactical of all monuments yet the simplest race - it has the longest and most dangerous neutral zone - it has countdown km signs at the side of the road from 275km - the crashes are random - the downhills are more important than the uphills. To put it simply, it’s a mindfucker.
As racers we always split races up into sections, some splitting is more complicated than others, almost all splitting is more complicated than MSR. It’s two halves, the tunnel of the Turchino Pass is the spiritual halfway point - the moment we exit the tunnel we descend to the coast and enter a brave new world - one where we’re more at home.
The bit nobody sees on TV is everybody shedding their kit and stopping for nature’s calling as we drop off and enter Genoa. The downhill ends in Genoa, we hit the seafront and turn right, beginning our journey along the Italian Riviera. It’s almost as if we’re finally getting up and out of bed, the previous 150km having been that time under the covers delaying the inevitable. When we leave Genoa, the event horizon is visible and the whole energy of the peloton changes from standby to power on.
The corniche road is one of the most beautiful we do in bike racing, the contrast to Milan is extreme, although there’s not much chance to appreciate it as the race becomes exponentially more stressful the further up the coast we go. The first hurdles are the “Capo’s”, Capo Mele, Capo Cervo and Capo Berta, the first is summited at 240km, the last at 253km - in any other race they’d be inconsequential, yet here they decide everything. It’s possible to have been floating the previous 240km yet you hit the Capo’s and realise you’re running out of fuel, if that’s the case, it’s game over. The amount of times racers will say, “I’d felt amazing, then I tried to stand up out the saddle and fell to pieces.” Welcome to Sanremo.
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If you’re properly in the race for the win then the Capo’s are barely noticed, they’re simply a footnote to the Cipressa, the hardest climb in Milan Sanremo. The race into the Cipressa is furious. Positioning is important if not critical when entering it, the reason being the mind has to remain focussed on how critical it is to be positioned well at the summit because that’s where shit gets real.
The descent of the Cipressa is one of the most incredible things you’ll ever do as a professional cyclist. We properly race down, no gifts. The hardest section is the junction back on to the coastal road - the speeds are maximal, and many victories have been lost right there on that flat section of road in the 500m following the descent, because it doesn’t matter how strong you are, if a gap opens up in front of you at 70km/h+ you’re fucked, the line out in front gets sucked back into the lead group, those who lose the wheel are air-braked out of the race. See-ya.
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Then everything settles down again, relatively, and the build-up begins for the final and decisive climb, the Poggio. The non-sprinters will be psyching up to attack, the sprinters will be committing 100% to not being dropped, their respective teams will be applying the relevant tactics to fulfill the pre-race strategy. By this point everything becomes very focused, you disappear into your own bubble, every bit of energy you’ve been conserving since rolling out in Milan 280km previously was for this moment. It’s the purest endgame in cycling.
It was around 4pm on March 22nd, 2003 when I hit the Poggio in my first MSR. I hadn’t noticed the Capo’s, the Cipressa hadn’t been that hard, and the descents had been fun. I was properly in the race. Saeco drove it into the bottom, Celestino clipped off, we “settled down”. I can remember being surprised at how easy Cipo, resplendent in his rainbow jersey, was making it look. I was waiting for it to happen, and I knew the greenhouses where it would take place, I was ready - BOOM - Paulini and Bettini went. Paulini was setting up Bettini, I went with them without thinking. We went from about 15th position. I made it off the front with them and went so stupidly deep not to lose the wheel knowing it was the move and the road would ease off. I exploded monumentally.
I vividly remember watching the race ride away from me. I’d felt good all day and bad right when it counted at the end. Fondriest was right, “David, that’s bike racing. It’s always going to be hard, it will always hurt, you only have to feel good at the end.”
The majority of the week before starting that MSR I'd been off the bike sick. I'd quit Tirreno Adriatico (the preparatory stage race) on the second day with bronchitis, I’d only ridden the day before the start out of duty. I figured, based on that less than ideal preparation, that one day I could attack and emulate my first hero, Fondriest. I never did. Didn’t even come close again. I did lose my gloves in my final MSR though, but that’s another story...
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