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Did You *Really* Know? La Classicissima!

Of course you do, but we have to try anyway.

Poggio sign
Tim de Waele

Yes, here we go again, but with some trepidation. You see, Milano-Sanremo is a Monument. Not a “monument” like Amstel Gold or a “monument bitchez!!” like Strade Bianche, but an actual, old-timey, super awesome and hard has hell Monument of Cycling. Taking it lightly, even in print from a remote location, does not impress the Gods of Cycling. And angering those dudes is not a good idea, even if you aren’t about to ride the Paris-Roubaix sportive, but especially if you are, and you don’t want to have to carry more than a dozen inner tubes.

OK, Milano-Sanremo. Great race. Perhaps you’ve heard? Perhaps you have already watched it a lot and read everything there is to say about it? Challenge accepted!

One feature that will probably always help define the race that you haven’t already read 17 articles about (I’m looking at you Poggio) is the Passo del Turchino. First, because I love names, what’s in this name?

Passo del Turchino, I think
Tim de Waele, Getty

Did you know! That the Passo del Turchino has nothing to do with turkeys? The Italian word for turkey is “tacchino,” and while while we all agree that words that sound alike should have roughly the same meaning, that’s not how language works. Another cool meaning for turchino would be Tarquin, like Tarquin the former king of Rome (pre-”Rome!”), a/k/a Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, but the re-Italianization of the Latin name is Tarquinio. [Side note: Superbus is a totally underutilized name, even now in the age of the Big Book of Baby Names. Wish I’d thought of this sooner.] Alas, Turchino is basically turquoise, but even that’s not half bad, because if you’re coming from inland and you crest this pass, it could well be your first look at the beautiful blue of the Mediterranean Sea.

What else... Well, the race doesn’t have the dopest creation story. It basically consists of people in Sanremo, the Unione Sportiva Sanremese, thinking it’d be great to have a big race that ended in their town, and getting Tullo Morgnani, who had invented the Giro di Lombardia, to throw together a race to Sanremo from the big northern hub. Morgnani carried the idea to Gazzetta dello Sport headman Eugenio Costamagna and wheels started spinning. It began as a two-day race, because as we have since discovered, it’s hard to ride a bike from Milano to Sanremo in under 300 kilometers, so at first the riders spent a night at Acqui Terme, which is a little less than halfway as the crow flies. That was in 1906, but in 1907 the pros took over, made it all the way to Sanremo, and a metaphor for the arrival of spring was born.

Is that a dull creation story? Maybe, but as metaphors go MSR has something to offer, by comparison. The Tour of Flanders is a metaphor for how you can speak Dutch and still be awesome. Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a metaphor for setting off to do something but then changing your mind and going back. Paris-Roubaix has only recently been dragged kicking and screaming into metaphorlandria after years of the locals trying to pave over their violent history, and its original story was nothing more than “Hey! Over here!” So don’t diss Milano-Sanremo.

I suppose you could dig a little deeper into its meaning, however. In the Ides of March!

Did you know! That there are some significant links between Milano-Sanremo and Julius Caesar?

“Ugh, Rome again? I get it, you’re fascinated with Rome, but this is bullshit.”

Well the race takes place in March...

“Yeah, this year. It’s never been as early as March 15, which is the definition of ‘the Ides’. And like half of the race editions were in April. It’s just a spring race.”

OK, well maybe we missed the Ides, but just by a few days this time. And the metaphor of being stabbed one by one? By the late climbs of the race? Et tu, Poggio?

“No. Stop.”

And isn’t this parcours just a Tour de Cisalpine Gaul? Mediolanum-Villa Matutiana?

“No. Shut up. Please. I’m begging you.”

General Pompey...


OK fine. Anyway, the race entered into cycling’s pantheon (heh) of great races thanks to some early badassery and a great startlist, which made the race a success before long. Jumping around the web you can surely find stories of Erik Zabel celebrating too soon or, god help us, yet another telling of Sean Kelly’s mad dash down the Poggio to victory in 1992 over Moreno Argentin. It defies further description but you’re welcome to watch it here.

But in the early days cycling was about selling newspapers with stories of how miserable a race was, and in 1910 everything came together. Unspecified “extreme cold weather” pummeled the peloton all day such that only seven riders officially finished, the first among them being Eugene Christope, he of the spontaneous fork forging escapade at the Tour, and only after he accidentally made it to the line after being convinced he’d taken the wrong road.

The next big snow interruption was in 2013, which we all pretty much remember, right? It’s the day the riders all climbed into the bus for a while, and also Taylor Phinney finished a brilliant seventh, less than a week after missing a time cut in Tirreno-Adriatico after a heroic solo effort to rejoin the race, a story he told with great emotion back in the day.

2013 MSR in all its glory
Tim de Waele, Getty

Anyway, the race has always drawn the stars, beginning with Lucien Petit-Breton, the first winner who bagged a couple Tours de France before his tragic death in WWI, and Cyrille van Hauwaert the next year launched his pretty decent Classics career with wins at MSR and Paris-Roubaix, a feat that earned him the newly-minted title of “Lion of Flanders.” Not too shabby! It also set a new “Double” benchmark that has only rarely been approached.

Did you know! That precious few MSR winners have gone on to double-up wins at any of the other spring Monuments, like ever? When we talk about “doubles” we usually link races that have some logical connection, and for better or worse, MSR isn’t logically connected to any other race on Earth. But the calendar lines it up with the rest of the spring classics, three of which are recognized Monuments, so winning two of those would be quite a thing. Here’s the list of people to pull it off:

  • Van Hauwaert, 1909, MSR and P-R
  • Fred De Bruyne, 1956, MSR and L-B-L
  • Eddy “whothefuckelse” Merckx, 1971 and 1972 (MSR and L-B-L), plus 1975 (MSR, L-B-L and de Ronde)
  • Sean Kelly, 1986, MSR and P-R
  • John Degenkolb, 2015, MSR and P-R

So that’s three MSR/P-R Doubles, one MSR-Flanders, and two or five MSR/L-B-Ls, depending on whether you’re counting people or occurrences. That’s a little weird, because practically nobody even does both MSR and Liege anymore. This has a bit to do with Liege changing from a race that finished in the center of Liege to one whose finish weeds out anyone who can’t climb really bloody well. But that’s getting off topic. Liege can wait a few more weeks before we start obsessing over that.

Degenkolb wins 2015 MSR
Tim de Waele

The route of this year’s MSR is utterly typical of the race, with no special obstacles that I can recall and the usual lineup of late obstacles in the form of the three capes, the Cipressa and the Poggio. No Le Manie. No Pompeiano. No gimmicks at all. Honestly, if there are even slight changes to the course, they aren’t worth geeking out over. It’s MSR, plain and simple.

2017 Milano Sanremo

The Poggio was added in 1960 to shake things up at the end, and as we all know it either will or it won’t. Or it partly will, if some sprinters get left behind but others claw back in time. One thing we do know with some confidence, since we are only two days away, is that the race is Saturday (mental note! Italian races love them some Saturdays, unlike pretty much everywhere else), and on Saturday the weather on the Ligurian coast is supposed to be just about perfect, with mild temperatures, light winds, and only the slightest chance of a shower. All outcomes remain officially in play.

Up the Poggio!
Tim de Waele

So who will win? I mean, why even ask that? A, whatever I say will be wrong anyway. And B, isn’t the whole point of watching live to experience the thrill of ... oh, screw it, Demare has this. I mean, if Kwiatkowski doesn’t get away. And of course there’s Nibali and his descending. Really, anyone but Tom Boonen, who never wins here and is on my FSA DS team, utterly killing his chances.