Milano-Sanremo Course Preview: Like a Milk Chocolate Candy Bar

Msr_new_medium If Milano-Sanremo were chocolate, it would be a thick bar of rich milk chocolate. You undo the shiny paper and there it is. You always know what you’re going to get.

With Milano-Sanremo, you’ll never unsuspectingly bite into the rum-soaked cherry. Seriously, does anyone even like chocolate-covered cherries? And didn’t you all just spit them out in a potted plant somewhere and hope no one noticed? Yes, yes you did. Because you’re all smart people.

Anyway, Milano-Sanremo is not the loser chocolate that everyone leaves untouched in the bottom of the box, or spits out in the potted plant. It’s predictably and reliably, scrumptiously delicious.

Raise your hand if you remember the last time we did not see a sprint in Sanremo? Oh look at you people, knowing all about the bike racing like that. In 2008, Fabian Cancellara stole the sprinters’ candy. That was mean. Bike racing is like that.

More typically, a sprinter wins Milano-Sanremo. Which, is why we call it the sprinters’ classic. Last year, Matthew Goss celebrated his biggest career victory in Sanremo. Oscar Freire has won on three occasions. Mark Cavendish has won once. Tom Boonen has never won. What? Tom, you slacker. Three-times Paris-Roubaix, whatevAH. Cobbles, shmobbles.

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What about the race? Get to the race, already, you say. The race sets out from Milano across the plains of northern Italy, which might be like the plains of Spain, when it comes right down to it. They’re flat, anyway. Around 100 kilometers of flat racing through Campo Ligure starts things off. It gets better! Promise!

After crossing the Campo Ligure, the riders come to the Passo del Turchino. The Turchino is not one of the harder climbs in cycling, but it remains iconic for its long history in the sport and the legends that have grown like a particularly rampant vine of ivy to embrace it. And so in 1946 did Fausto Coppi announce his return from the wars and his country’s rebirth with a solo victory that began on the slopes of the Passo del Turchino and ended on the streets of Sanremo.

No one passes through the tunnel alone at the summit of the Passo del Turchino these days in the way of Coppi. But the climb still serves as a gateway to the coast, and if you believe in metaphor, it marks the passage from winter to the brighter days in spring. And who among us doesn’t believe in metaphor, since to be a cycling fan is to revel in the warm embrace of myth and legend and to see on every climb and in every race the ghosts of great riders past.

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From the summit of the Passo del Turchino, it’s a fast, corkscrewing descent to the Ligurian coast. Then, the riders have 50 kilometers of flat racing along the coast. This is the Milano-Sanremo of the photographs, the fast roads the run southwest along Italy’s Mediterranean coast. It’s beautiful country for a bike race.

For the riders, there’s nothing all that beautiful about Milano-Sanremo. With no real obstacles to split up the bunch, the race is a high-speed slam dance. Everyone has to ride at the front, and every Italian rider would sell his grandmother for even ten seconds of television time. It’s a fierce battle for position and survival, punctuated by polyglot curses.

Over the years, Milano-Sanremo has followed much the same course, but periodically, the organizers decide to tinker with the formula. They add a little more milk to the chocolate. In 2009, they added a new climb just outside Savona. Le Mànie is short and steep and follows a narrow, windy road to its summit. Yes, my friends, the theme Milano-Sanremo is narrow, windy roads. Le Mànie intensifies the positioning war, especially because the descent is a beautiful disaster of hairpin turns and steep ramps. The climb is not likely to end anyone’s race, but the descent certainly could.

From Le Mànie, Milano-Sanremo speeds toward the Capi, the short, explosive climbs that wrinkle the Ligurian coast and make the sprinters cry. Mele, Cervo, and Berta: They sound like the three Fates of Greek mythology and for the sprinters, these three climbs can cut short their race. It took Mario Cipollini fourteen attempts to win Milano-Sanremo. This may be the sprinters’ classic, but there’s nothing easy about winning it.

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With the Capi behind us, there’s not far to go, now. If anyone has hopes of winning from a breakaway, their time is now. The real Milano-Sanremo begins in the run-in to La Cipressa. There, the positioning battle between the sprinters who want to start the climb near the front and the climbers who want to burn the sprinters begins. There are always attacks on La Cipressa, but they rarely survive. Paolo Bettini tried in 2003, only to be caught in view of the il Poggio, the final climb of the race. Nearly every year La Cipressa ends the hopes of one of the sprinters. In 2010, Mark Cavendish said goodbye to the bike race on La Cipressa.

From La Cipressa, there’s a nasty stretch of exposed flat road on the way to the final climb of the day, il Poggio. Rare is the breakaway that survives this perilous crossing. For there is nearly always a headwind. And the sprinters, they are feeling more confident now. Just one more climb to go. You can always make it over one more climb. Surely, that’s what they’ll be saying as the race hurtles toward the base of il Poggio.

There’s only 10 kilometers to go now. It’s a fast, serpentine climb up the four kilometers of Il Poggio. There are always attacks here, but rare is the rider who attacks on the slopes of il Poggio and survives to win in Sanremo. Paolo Bettini did it in 2003, but no one has succeeded since then. Il Poggio is as famous for its descent as it is for the climb. The road drops dizzyingly from the summit. This is iconic Italian racing: narrow roads, fast climbs, and hairbrained descents. To win from il Poggio, a rider must climb well and descend even better. Sean Kelly, you mad genius.

From the descent off il Poggio, just three kilometers of racing remains. The race turns on to the lungomare Italo Calvino, a wide, flat stretch of road. Here again, wind plays its hand. The sprinters will hope for a headwind to slow the attackers, while riders like Vincenzo Nibali and Philippe Gilbert will dream of tailwinds to speed their way to solo victory.

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In 2008, Fabian Cancellara attacked on this flat stretch of road to devastating effect and rode alone into the piazzale Carlo Dapporto. It was brutal and beautiful in the way that the best victories are.

More likely, the sprinters will come charging up from behind in these final kilometers. Hey! It’s their race! They want to win it! In recent years, the sprinters have tended to fend for themselves in this finale as their team-mates have burned their legs somewhere along the road to Sanremo. The crafty riders like Oscar Freire have an advantage here, but Mark Cavendish, best known for his perfectly set-up bunch sprint victories, has also won. So really, it’s all about who has the legs on the day and who can sprint the fastest after 298 kilometers of racing.

For favorites, I’ll take Oscar Freire, Tom Boonen, and Mark Cavendish. Daniele Bennati looked good Strade Bianche. His riding! People! Get out of the gutter! Fabian Cancellara is pretty much a favorite wherever he shows up to race. Count in Vincenzo Nibali, for the simple reason that Milano-Sanremo is a bike race in Italy. Long shot shout-out to Oscar Gatto who finished on the podium at Strade Bianche.

Viva la Primavera! And viva Milano-Sanremo! Because everyone likes a chocolate bar.

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