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The Shrunken Milano-Sanremo

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A lot of people think the race is too long. They have short memories.

Recent winners of the shortened course include Italian Filippo Pozzato
AFP/Getty Images

You know how we complain that kids are so spoiled today, that they have no idea what sort of unbearable hardships we endured when we were their age? It’s so true! While my kids are dialing up every song they like on Apple Music or Spotify, I can’t help but harken back to my painful youth, when we would sit around for hours next to the radio waiting for that Donna Summer song to come on that we heard two days ago and really liked. Yep, those were hard times.

It’s that way with cycling. Everyone talks about Milano-Sanremo and its nearly 300 kilometer route like it’s the Bataan Death March (which was also a very hard thing unlike anything that kids do anymore). But did you know! That the 300-km route is almost a straight line from Milano to Sanremo? Check it out on a map. It’s just a touch west of a due southerly direction for 300km. Given the available roads, you couldn’t possibly get to the finish line any quicker.

But while people tend to overlook the past, the truth is it wasn’t that long ago that the race was a far harder test than it is today. In its early decades MSR was no simple stroll to the beach like it’s become now. It was a grueling test of the limits of human desire. Days spent overcoming inhuman challenges en route to the promise of spring and better days ahead. Not everyone made it. And for those who did, life would never be the same again.

Let’s take a little stroll through history, shall we?

1907: Inaugural Slog

Perhaps you remember Tullo Morgagni from such races as the Giro di Lombardia and the infamous Milan-Milan race. The former has always been exactly the same with no changes in the race course, while the latter is somewhat shrouded in mystery. The first Milan-Milan started and finished in Milan — duh — but in between each competitor was given a different set of Italian cities to visit, based on a random drawing. Woe betide he who drew the dreaded Bari-Catania-Cagliari route! Several riders went missing in the first three years of the race, one of whom was declared King of Malta in a bizarre series of mix-ups. The race was eventually folded into the Giro di Lombardia.

Anyway, it was Morgagni who conceived of the idea of a cold-weather start and a warm-weather finish as a harbinger of spring, linking Milano to the coastal resort town of Sanremo. Back then, Milanese winters were much more severe, and today’s ubiquitous tram tracks were actually patterned after the city’s historic nordic ski routes that people used to get to work. In one famous story a local pasta-maker named Giuseppe Fettucine invented a slightly wider noodle than the city’s traditional linguine, with the new one fashioned to look like the racing skis he used to complete his winter deliveries. Fettucine entered the first Milan-Milan race but was last seen at a checkpoint in Taranto and never heard from again.

Back to the race, Morgagni’s invention was focused on the race experiencing the two seasons simultaneously. The first edition was something of a success, ascending the pass around Mont Blanc as the racers switched to skis, which they had to transport on their backs when biking and were required to finish with in Sanremo. It got a little awkward when the racers had to transport their bikes on their backs as they skied over the pass, but more than two-thirds of the riders who started on the skiing portion emerged on the other side in France, checking in for a photo with the famous cows of Mont Saleve, outside Geneva (a required checkpoint for security purposes) before completing the race. Lucien Petit-Breton won the bunch sprint in Sanremo in just under seven days and 14 hours, over Gustave Garrigou, who was nearly relegated for causing a crash when his ski lodged in the wheel of Giovanni Cuniolo.

Lucien Petit-Breton
Roger Viollet/Getty Images

1911: High Times

Race director Eugenio Costamanga, who presided over the switch to an all-cycling route three years earlier, cuts 250km from the route by sending the race over the treacherous route from Sestriere to Bourg d’Oisins and south to the Cote d’Azur. But bad luck strikes in the form of a winter storm, and only 15 riders complete the race, won by Ugo Agostini. One of the riders entering Sanremo spots Costamanga and screams “Assasins!” at the Director. It’s a bad omen for Costamanga, who works as an assassin in the offseason to supplement his income. Thinking his cover is blown, Costamanga goes into hiding, accepting a job with the newly-formed UCI as their anti-doping enforcement officer.

Garrigou wins by a wheel length over Louis Trousselier, in a time of four days, 17 hours, 8 minutes and 32 seconds.

1914: Turmoil

The earlier debacle in the French Alps leads the race to look for new routes with less severe weather. But maps are nothing special in 1916, so the race heads north from Milano to look for a way through the granite. It is clear that the roads into Switzerland are not passable, so the lead cars turn east. No relief is waiting for them there, however, and eventually the race meanders into Serbia, where nationalists from a local university threaten the race director for encroaching on Serb sovereignty. This raises important legal questions — Serbia is under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire — and the peloton is loaded on a train for Vienna. After three days of vigorous argument, the race is denied the chance to continue. But fortune strikes as another train bound for Nice is due in two days. The race is loaded onto that train and ends in another bunch finish, won by Ugo Agostini in a photo finish, in a time of 11 days, two hours, eight minutes and 36 seconds.

Girardengo congratulated in victory
AFP/Getty Images

1928: Monumental Achievement

Arguments rage across Europe concerning which races are the true “monuments” of cycling. Most of these are one-day races, which pale in comparison to the demands of Milano-Sanremo. To drive this point home, the organizers of MSR design the race to take in portions of the big races, starting in Milan and heading north to Lake Como, then west to the outskirts of Paris, up to Roubaix, across Flanders, down to Liege, then to Bastogne where they head back to Liege, before driving south for Sanremo. Costante Girardengo takes a tight sprint from Alfredo Binda and 76 other riders in the final bunch gallop, in a time of two weeks, three days, 11 hours, four minutes and 29 seconds.

1936: The Low Point

In the grip of Fascism, the race organizers contend with all new sets of forces, including the paradoxical interest in the race from Il Duce and his inability to focus on anything for more than a few minutes between bites of formaggioburgers and flattering press sheets issued by Notizia Volpe. Speed up the race, they are told, if they know what’s good for them. So the race heads south through the Po Valley, crosses the Rubicon, heads down to Rome, then to the coast at Ostia before turning north and following the coastline all the way to Liguria. Angelo Varetto wins the speedy group finish in less than two days! (47 hours, 11 minutes, 13 seconds, to be precise.)

Coppi Sykes Bloomsbury

1950: White Magic

Fausto Coppi is the main attraction, but Il Campionissimo is in demand by this time, and is allowed to call the shots. Coppi asks for the race to pause in Novi Ligure for the evening after the first day of racing (via Brescia, Padua and Piacenza), where Coppi wishes to visit a friend. It’s a woman, dressed all in white, and she finds room for the entire peloton, as long as they promise not to spill any secrets. The riders hold up their end of the bargain, and the race organizers, staying in a hotel nearby, are told of a road through the Passo del Turchino, the low hill on the southern horizon, that’s been there all along.

The race heads over the Passo del Turchino the next day, followed by a brisk and exciting ride to Sanremo, where Coppi is expected to take the honors for the third consecutive year. Upon discovering the road, which was built in 1886, race organizers realize what a terrible mistake they had made in designing every edition of the race since it was conceived nearly half a century earlier. The entire organization is fired by the Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper, which owns the event, and forced into exile, where they are given jobs at the UCI in western Switzerland.

Coppi wins in another bunch sprint, but the Pope finds out about his extramarital contact the night before and pressures the race to disqualify the great champion in favor of runner-up Gino Bartali. The winning time is a new record of 32 hours, 14 minutes and 7 seconds.

And that, my friends, is the true story of how this race course came to be. And why a mere 300 km is really not such a big deal, after all.