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Milano-Sanremo: The Stuff of Legends

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A look back at how the sport’s least exciting classics course keeps doling out greatness

Coppi al solo
Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

If we have learned anything from the rich history of Milano-Sanremo, it’s that we collectively can’t stop underrating how great this race is. And it all starts with the parcours.

Here’s this year’s version:

MSR 2019 Profile

It’s the classic Classicissima. We haven’t seen Le Manie since the 2014 edition, which is cool because other than crashing out Thor Hushovd I don’t remember it ever doing very much to the race. In 2014 the race wanted to add a climb between the Cipressa and Poggio called La Pompeiana, but it was declared too rough to use a few weeks before the race. And from then it’s been back to the classic course. Sure, each edition’s quirks made their mark on things, but as far as influencing the outcome, the parcours will allways be the Turchino, the three capes, the Cipressa and the Poggio.

It is this combination of features that opens the race up to a few possible outcomes, each one distinct enough to give hope to a large number of riders, which in turn makes MSR so great. I barely feel the need to sell this concept to anyone, after 2017’s three-up drama and last year’s solo sensation. The chance of a bunch finish versus a successful escape is more or less a coin flip.

So on this blank canvas we see event after event that leaves us gasping for air. As I’ve heard people say, MSR is the easiest race to finish among the monuments, but still so difficult to win that it defies routine, and often ends up in the hands of the giants of the sport.

By now you probably know about some of the recent versions. If you’ve watched cycling much or you’re Irish, you’ve seen the video of Sean Kelly descending the Poggio in 1992 enough to count it as a member of your family. You probably remember Freire beating Zabel in 2004 while the German raised his arms in victory. Maybe you can picture Pozzato stealing away from the pack in 2006, or Cancellara doing the same in 2008. Good times, all.

But these are just amuses bouches following upon so many hearty courses of cycling excellence. 109 editions. A century of stories. Here are a few you might not know.

Gino Bartali crosses the line to win in 1950
De Agostini via Getty Images

1950: Gino the Swift

When you think of Gino Bartali, how often do you picture him winning a sprint? The answer is probably close to zero, since his sprint wins, numerous though they may be, didn’t do that much to define him. They are definitely a part of the portfolio, of course — every great cyclist won his share of bunch gallops on the way to greatness, if not necessarily once they got there. But Bartali managed one of the world’s most defining doubles, the MSR-Lombardia, which Bartali owned outright for two consecutive years, 1939-40. This puts him in company with Eddy Merckx and Fausto Coppi. More helpfully, the list of guys who did the double once extends only to Binda, Girardegno, Michele Mara, and Louison Bobet. And for guys who won both, toss in Kelly, Jalabert, De Vlaeminck, Kuiper, Gimondi, and Van Looy.

Bartali’s win in the 1950 MSR, his last victory there, was a textbook display of cunning and skill. Approaching his 35th birthday, the Pious One outkicked several stars in their prime, including Fiorenzo Magni and Rik Van Steenbergen. He mixed in attacks on the Capo Berta, which put the Belgian on the defensive and neutralized the plans of Coppi to launch himself. Coppi then worked in the sprint for Oreste Conti, who ended up third. Bartali judged Van Steenbergen as his main threat and clung to his wheel doggedly in the sprint, outfoxing his youthful companions for the win. Later that summer, Bartali proved his foresight in another way, donating a substantial sum of money to help fund the completion of the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Spain, which for most people would mark the coolest thing on their life’s palmares, but not for the war hero and great champion.

Coppi soloing in MSR
Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

1946: Coppi... and Some Dance Music

Four years before Bartali’s unlikely sprint, it was in La Primavera that the Legend of the Campionissimo was born. Fausto Coppi had previously won a war-era Giro d’Italia in 1940, but unremarkably, and with fewer stage wins than Bartali, who had somehow managed to drop 40 minutes along the way or his late blitz of stage wins might have held off his new rival. Regardless, Coppi was a known quantity in the war years, but not a national hero (depending on who you ask) as we know him now. So in the spring of 1946, as the sun rose again over Europe, he stamped his authority on the sport of cycling in a way that awakened the passions of Italy’s war-worn tifosi.

Coppi and Bartali were pre-race favorites in Milano, but legend has it that Bartali was lacking in motivation due to some contract strife with his Legnano team. In perfect contrast, Coppi had just then switched over to the Bianchi team whose jersey would seem permanently affixed to his torso for the rest of his life. With those diverging motivations, it was Coppi who jumped in the early break near Binasco, literally on the outskirts of Milan, where some intermediate prizes forced a lifting of the pace. Some 15km later there were only four leaders and by the Turchino it was just Coppi and Frenchman Lucien Teisseire.

It was a mismatch though, and Coppi reached the Ligurian Sea with a five minute advantage, en route to a 151-km solo ride that saw him win by 14 minutes over Teisseire (who also deserves props for his own amazing solo) and 18 over the peloton, led home by Ricci ahead of Bartali. After Coppi crossed the line, the radio commentator Niccolo Carosio announces to fans, “First is Fausto Coppi! While we await the runner up, we will broadcast some dance music.” La Gazzetta dello Sport crowed “Fausto Coppi no longer sees anyone from Turchino to Sanremo and bends any obstacle of the Sphinx Race to his indomitable will.” That, my friends, is legend.

[And if you can unearth any indication of why this was called the “Sphinx Race,” I am all ears. The riddle of the Sphinx? The mercilessness? Something about noses? No clue.]

1955: Specialty of the Belgians

Who is the greatest Belgian classics star you’ve never heard of? I’ll put my money on Germain Derycke. If the ultimate classics rider’s resume includes all five monuments (which only Merckx, De Vlaeminck and Van Looy can claim), surely next would be four of the five? This has been done by Kelly, De Bruyne, Bobet and Derycke, with the latter the only rider to ever win just once at the rather coherent set of Flanders, Roubaix, MSR and Liege. [Bobet, whose quartet of monument wins are similarly spread around, lacked a Liege win but got Lombardia.] [Oh, and if Gilbert wins Saturday, he can join these ranks, albeit with two Giri di Lombardia and of course no Roubaix.]

Derycke got started on his resume in 1953, winning Paris-Roubaix from a two-up sprint with Donato Piazza, who had flown the break only to be reeled in by a bridging Derycke. The next spring Derycke came in second in a bunch sprint for the win at La Fleche Wallonne, behind Ferdi Kubler, but the Swiss had nudged Derycke into the barriers in the process, and was relegated to second behind the Belgian.

Then his MSR win, which I’ll get to in a second. Because his story gets even more remarkable in 1957, when Derycke crosses first at Liege-Bastogne-Liege ahead of Frans Schoubben, a couple minutes up on the field. But this time it’s Derycke who is kinda-maybe relegated, for crossing a train track when the barrier was down. Except the judges relegated Derycke to a share of the win, with Schoubben, The following year Derycke took his home monument, de Ronde van Vlaanderen, in a mini-bunch sprint following an 85-km escape he had instigated.

For his MSR victory in 1955, Derycke was again the aggressor, leading an escape on the Capo Mele, only to be caught in Sanremo. Down but not out, Derycke sprinted so magnificently that he was given a 1” gap over his defeated rivals, Jean Bobet, Bernard Gauthier and Mauro Gianneschi. In the post-race scrum the previous winner, Rik Van Steenbergen, stopped by to pass judgment on the champion: “Sanremo is a specialty of the Belgians,” he told his countryman. He’s not wrong: By 1958, Rik Van Looy makes it four Belgian wins in five years.

Eddy Merckx with Michele Dancelli
Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

1970: Dancelli With the Wolves

The biggest crisis in Italian cycling, apart from anything doping-related, has to be the MSR victory drought that ended in 1970. Italians routinely honor their races with their best performances, or at least enough guile to smite the foreigners, and the palmares of the Giro d’Italia are absurdly weighted to the hosts: 69 wins, followed by a bunch of countries, the best of which is Belgian with seven titles.

Milano-Sanremo was like that for a long time. Until Loretto Petrucci bagged his second straight win in 1953. The classics star could finish off a sprint, but little did anyone know that nearly a generation would pass from his final dash in 1953 to 1970 before another Italian would win La Classicissima. For ten editions, Italians barely merited a footnote, with Fiorenzo Magni taking an unremarkable second in 1956 before total silence descended. By 1965, the natives were getting restless, and in that year’s race little-known Arie den Hartog pipped well-decorated Vittorio Adorni for the victory. A year later, Adriano Durante lost to some 21-year-old kid named Merckx. The following year, Merckx won from a four-man break, three of whom were Italians.

Not til 1970 did the home crowd gain satisfaction again. That day, Dancelli — who had won just about every classic in Italy but barely registered abroad — hopped in an early escape before the Turchino with 17 others... but not Merckx, Dancelli’s Molteni teammate.

By the time the race reached the Riviera, in Loano, Dancelli escaped with Carlo Chiappano. The latter seemed intent on drawing a bit more company, but when it didn’t materialize, he dropped back, leaving Dancelli alone. And that was that. It’s not too fanciful to imagine the crowds screaming in support for Dancelli, or the shame of 16 years driving the Italian to pour himself into the work of a solo victor. Dancelli finished 1.39 up on the rest. In tears he tells the press: “They didn’t believe I was a champion.” No arguing it now.

Nibali wins at last
Getty Images

2018: Nibali Bit by Bit

Just last year... it barely needs recapping, right? Vincenzo Nibali, by far the biggest star in Italian cycling, had spent years looking for an opening in the final minutes of the Classicissima, where his combination of climbing, instinct, and descending might be just enough to get him to the line first. But apart from a third place in 2012 the Shark of the Straits had little to show for his constant efforts.

This time though, it worked. The magic of Milano-Sanremo is its many faces, and what failed so many times before came together at long last. Nibali attacked in counter to the usual Poggio moves, close to the top where he could power away and tuck into his trademark downhill madness before someone could close the gap. It was a harrowing few minutes into town, summoning the ghosts of Kelly and Cancellara combined (neither of whom is dead, but just work with me here), as he switched from descending to time-trialling, getting in ahead of the charging peloton by mere meters.

The win gave Nibali a bookend of monuments (with Lombardia) to go with overall success in the three grand tours. For Italy, it broke a string of 11 straight foreign wins, a drought exceeded only by the one Dancelli broke. It goes in the books as a sprint win with the same time given to the bunch, but in reality it was so much more.

With all that, maybe we are due for a dull race ending in a bunch finish won by one of the usual sprinters. The potential for nothing to happen is part of what in turn reflects the greatness of the memorable editions. The only formula is no formula at all. And you’ve got seven hours to see what the next big surprise will be. Enjoy.