The beautiful song of Milano-Sanremo

‘For us Italians, it is a dream to win it. All the best riders in history have won it’

Every young bike racer in Italy wants to win Milano Sanremo. It is La Classicissima—the classic of the classics. Each spring, the country gathers in the early morning around their television sets to watch the peloton set off from the Duomo di Milano, a cathedral at the center of Piazza

 

The racers then travel through Lombardy, Piemonte, and the Apennines, before arriving on the hilly Riviera del Fiori for the approach to Sanremo’s Via Roma and the finish, which comes early in the evening after 300 kilometres of racing. 

 

Generations of cycling heroes have written their stories in Sanremo. They’ve been collected throughout the years in the Gazetta dello Sport’s archives. Costante Girardengo, a peasant-gentleman earned his first victory in 1918 while war was still raging in the northeast of the country. Girardengo went on to win six more. 

 

Then there’s Fausto Coppi’s mythic venture of 1946, which brought together a broken nation, to Pippo Pozzato’s 2006 sprint from a last-minute break and Vincenzo Nibali’s most recent victory. Italy’s champions inspire future pelotons of cyclists. They remind their fellow citizens of one of their country’s great glories: its bike racing.

 

Brief side note on Fausto Coppi’s 1946 victory. Legend has it that Fausto Coppi not only won by a solid 14-minutes, he did so after having stopped for a cup of coffee before crossing the line.

“It’s a symbol,” says EF Pro Cycling’s Italian classics star Alberto Bettiol. “It’s the only race on the calendar of 300 kilometres, and for us Italians, it is a dream to win it, because all the best riders in history have won it.”

 

Although Alberto has already won one of cycling’s monuments, the Ronde van Vlaanderen last year, winning Milano-Sanremo would be even more special.

 

“To win it in Italy and to win it in front of the Italian people, in my country, it’s something that’s difficult even to dream… It is Milano-Sanremo. I am Italian. It would be something unbelievable, indescribable,” he says.

 

EF Pro Cycling’s Simon Clarke finished ninth in the sprint on the Via Roma last year, after catching the lead group with a blistering last descent. The race has a special place in his heart too. He broke his back trying to win it in 2018.

 

“When I first came to Europe in 2003 when I was 16-yeas-old, I stayed in Italy and raced in Italy with the Australian national team,” he says. “So, it is probably the European country that I have raced the most in, and I feel most at home racing in. I really love racing here, and appreciate every time I am able to line up for such a significant race.”

This year, Milano Sanremo will look a little different. For one, the race, which is such a rite of spring in Italy that it is also named La Primavera, will be held under the hot summer sun, as it had to be postponed due to the recent lockdowns in Italy. 

 

Several towns along the coast were not prepared to host the race, so the course has been changed, too. This year, the peloton will reach the seaside in Imperia, after 257 kilometres of racing. That means that the iconic passage over the Turchino has been left out. Instead, the riders will ascend two minor climbs: the Niella Belbo at the 161-kilometre mark and the Colle di Navia after 229 kilometers. From Imperia, the traditional finale remains the same: first, the swooping 5.6-kilometre climb of the Cipressa followed by a high-speed descent onto the climb of the Poggio. The Poggio is only 3.7 kilometres in length, but it always proves decisive. It switchbacks jut up to its summit, which is only 5.3 kilometres from the finish and is followed by a breakneck descent towards Sanremo and the line on the Via Roma.

 

Simon Clarke revisited the finale a few weeks ago. He’s not sure how the other route changes will affect the race. On Thursday, the team will recon the most important sections, paying particular attention to the long, fast downhill before the Cipressa.

Still, La Classicissima’s spirit remains much the same. In many ways, it’s a throwback to an earlier era, when organisers didn’t have the pressure to provide made-for-TV action every few minutes, as audiences would listen to the race on the radio while going about their days and wait for the final written account, which would appear in the next day’s Gazzetta.

 

“You pass a lot of periods during the race,” Alberto says. “At the beginning, you start really fast. You have eaten a lot of pasta in the morning, so you have a bit of a heavy stomach. And then there is a long, long transition period—it is around 150 kilometres—where you pass through Lombardia, Piemonte, towards the Apennines, that drop you directly onto the coast. Once you are on the coast, you start to feel your legs—if you are on a good day or a bad day.”

 

That prolonged build up gives the race its heroic character and heightens the drama for the crescendo.

 

“It is probably the easiest monument on paper, but it is the hardest one to win, because so many things can happen, and it’s such a tricky and calculating race,” Clarke says.

 

“Once you hit the Cipressa, the real race starts,” Alberto adds. “Straight after you have like 10 kilometres between the Cipressa and the Poggio, and on the Poggio every year there are some attacks.”

Riders have to gamble. Milano Sanremo can be won by climbers and sprinters alike. If you’re near the front when attackers are launching towards the top, as Alberto did last year, you have to choose whether to go with them and hope they stay away or bet that they will be caught and save your strength to hurtle that much faster towards the line.

 

“This year, I will try not to attack,” Alberto says. “I will stay on the wheels and play my cards in the sprint, because the sprint in Milano Sanremo is not a normal sprint; it’s a sprint after more than six and a half hours. This year, it’s going to be a sprint after a long ride below a really hot sun, so the energy will not be too high. I will do my best, as always. Milan Sanremo is a different race compared to all the others.”

 

Watch out for Simon Clarke, too.

 

“I had a good result last year with the top 10 and I am definitely aiming to try to better that result this year,” he says. “We also have Alberto riding really well at the moment. The priority is to get a good result for the team like we were able to do at Strade Bianche. Depending on how the race will play out, it will be myself or Bettiol going for a top result.”

 

An Australian or an Italian—if one of EF Pro Cycling’s contenders wins Italy’s great classic, they will inspire people around the entire world.