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How To Win Milano-Sanremo

Milano-Sanremo The winter always feels forever long, but at last, we come now to Spring. In celebration, Italy brings us a bike race. Milano-Sanremo begins inland in Milano and crosses nearly 100 kilometers of flat plains. Then, it's on to the Passo Turchino which carries the riders to the coast. The race runs southwest over the uneven terrain of Italy's Ligurian Coast. The real Milano-Sanremo begins on the Cipressa, the near-final climb of the race.

Want more details on the course? Do visit my 2010 preview, Rite of Spring (with video!) and my 2009 preview, From Turchino to Poggio (with photos!). The course remains unchanged, so I feel no need to write you yet another preview. Also, there was surf today. Surely you see the connection between these events.

Instead, let's get up close and personal with the business end of this La Primavera thing, shall we? Italian geography? So over it. Ligurian Coast? Whatevs, I got plenty of coast. Also, I have better surf. We want to know how to WIN this Milano-Sanremo. So let's have a look at how to's of winning Italy's Spring classic.

The Cipresso Charge

In 1946 during the first edition of Milano-Sanremo after the Second World War, Fausto Coppi won solo after an attack on the Passo Turchino. Thems were the days, man! Wool jerseys! Steel bikes! No radios! Ahem. In any case, in The Modern Era of cycling, no crazed soul has seen fit to match this particular exploit. Alas, the poor Passo Turchino, left out of the fun. At least, she still looks pretty.

The Cipressa, added in 1982 to give the attackers more chances, summits with 23 kilometers left to race. Lionel Birnie tells us that Marc Gomez won with an attack on the Cipressa the very first year the organizers added it to the race. (People, go read that story. It's totally worth it.) In my memory, which is poor to fair rather like today's surf, no one has survived to win from the Cipressa in Sanremo. Instead, the hard men's teams typically push the tempo and try to burn the sprinters. At least one big name usually goes out the back on the Cipressa. Last year, I believe it was Mark Cavendish and his dodgy dentistry who said arrividerci to the main field on the Cipressa.

In 2003, Paolo Bettini attempted the Cipressa Charge. He created a three-up breakaway on the Cipressa. It was looking good until the Dread Headwind struck. Flat road traces the coastline after the Cipressa, and frequently, wind ruins the hopes of those riders bold enough to make a play on the Cipressa. Not far from the base of the Poggio, the bunch caught the Bettini escape and he believed his hopes had come to an end. Not so fast, for if you fail on the Cipressa, there is still yet another tactic to try. Really, we're just getting started with the winning.

The Poggio Play

The Poggio is the final climb of the day and the four kilometer climb begins with just ten kilometers to race. Like a trampoline, this climb offers the chance to bounce away from the field to victory. Only rarely does a rider succeed in this effort, because il Poggio really isn't that difficult as climbs go. The field hits it flying and the high speeds make getting and keeping a gap remarkably difficult. After his failed attempt on the Cipressa, Paolo Bettini did succeed on the Poggio. He is the most recent rider to win with an attack on the final climb, I believe.

What goes up must come down, and the descent off il Poggio puts the vertigo in vertiginous. It's fast and spinny. The road looks like someone dumped a bowl of spaghetti over the top of the hill, not that anyone would commmit such sacrilege to il Poggio or the spaghetti. The winning move may go on the climb, but it succeeds or fails on the descent. Sean Kelly shows how it's done. The hairpins grant a slight advantage to the escape, but that advantage dissipates once the bunch returns to earth with the descent's end.

The Cancellara Caper

Three flat kilometers separate the end of the Poggio descent from the finish line. It's flat. The road is wide (though this year, there is a narrow section due to construction.) There is frequently a headwind. In a recent interview, Philippe Gilbert said he hoped for a tail wind. A tail wind is the best luck an attacking rider can have, because it lessens the benefit of drafting for the chasing field and balances the equation between escape and chase.

This gambit is named after Fabian Cancellara. Why? Like, you have to ask? In 2008, Fabian Cancellara attacked on the lungomare Italo Calvino, the flat stretch of road that connects il Poggio to the finish in the piazzale Carlo Dapporto. This move rarely succeeds and few riders have Cancellara's ability to punk the sprinters with such élan. Philippe Gilbert, he dreams of a tailwind. Cancellara, he has no need of such things as tailwinds. Watch again as Samuel Sánchez, no slouch deep in the finale of a big bike race, scrambles to get on a wheel that is already a long way gone.

The sprinters' teams will hope for a headwind. They will also hope that they make it over la Cipressa and il Poggio with enough legs to contain any cheeky exuberance from the likes of Gilbert or Cancellara. Strength in numbers, that's what the sprinters need.

The Sprinter's Surprise

This final tactic is not so aptly named, for there is little surprise left in a bunch sprint. But we don't know until the final centimeter which sprinter will get the podium kisses, so maybe it isn't such a bad name after all. Just ask Heinrich Haussler. He knows well just how small the separation between winner and first loser.

In recent editions, the sprinters have not had much help by the finale of La Primavera. Last year, around thirty riders made the finish in Sanremo. The big sprinters could command only one or two team-mates, if they were lucky. The combination of la Cipressa, il Poggio, and the sheer length of the race means that the sprinters' teams are often done and then some by the time they reach the final kilometer.

So it's a sprint for the clever riders. Little wonder that Oscar Freire won last year's edition. Oh woe is me, the sprinter who needs an armchair ride to the 500 meter mark. Because really, you aren't likely to get it at Milano-Sanremo. Heinrich Haussler, he can freelance. Mark Cavendish typically has a trano, but he has also won on his own two legs. Garmin-Cervélo will hope to have three riders in the finale with Haussler, Hushovd, and Farrar, but it would be rather black swannish for that to happen on the day. So, you see, it is a surprise! The fastest sprinter wins! And who knows until the line, who it will be?

Viva La Primavera!

And that, my friends, is how Milano-Sanremo is won. In recent editions, the sprinters have outwon the escapes. But there are some handy riders on the escapers side of things: Philippe Gilbert, Filippo Pozzato (wait, where is that guy, anyway? I feel like I haven't heard his name so much lately?), Fabian Cancellara, Vincenzo Nibali, Michele Scarponi. Watch for these guys to try their chances with the attacking. Sprinters? Haussler, Freire, Cavendish, Bennati (C'mon now, be nice), Petacchi (if he starts), these dudes, they'll be hoping for headwinds and lackluster attacking. I'll leave it to you, my friends, to decide which is the most likely, the attack or the sprint, and which rider will celebrate victory in the piazzale Carlo Dapporto.

Viva la Primavera! Milano-Sanremo, at last, spring is here!