Milan-San Remo - An underdog win

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03/18/2013| 0 comments
by Neil Browne
While Peter Sagan and Cancellara were eyeballing each other like a shark might a fat seal, Ciolek was the sucker fish attached to the belly Fotoreporter Sirotti

Milan-San Remo - An underdog win

It's a race for the sprinter, except when it isn't.

The Italian painting La Primavera, also known as the Allegory of Spring, shows a group of mythological characters enjoying the change in weather. Bike racing also has its La Primavera, Milan-San Remo. Starting outside Milan the race covers 280 kilometers to finish on the streets of San Remo.

Like the La Primavera painting, the race is one of the most popular events on the calendar. Perhaps it’s because this is the first big monument of the season with a rich 107 year history. It’s a race won by the greats in the sport: Gino Bartali (four times), Fausto Coppi (three times), Eddy Merckx (seven times), Roger De Vlaeminck (three times), Sean Kelly (twice), to name just a few.

Typically the race ends in a field sprint. Or from a small group. Or solo.

Kelly famously descended the Poggio, the final hill of the day, like a mad man to catch a solo Moreno Argentin. With a little over a kilometer remaining Kelly caught and crushed him in the sprint for the victory.

Coppi famously went for the long solo attack to take the flowers in San Remo. Those were the days when an attack with still several climbs remaining was not unheard of.

In contrast, Fabian Cancellara attacked from a group of seven in 2008 with three kilometers to the line and took the win.

Recently the fast-men have reclaimed this monument called the “sprinter’s classic.” Erik Zabel, Mario Cipollini, Oscar Freire, Alessandro Petacchi, and Mark Cavendish each claimed San Remo in a bunch sprint.

However, the last three editions have been won from a select group that tore themselves away from the peloton: Matthew Goss (2011), Simon Gerrans (2012), and this past Sunday, Gerald Ciolek of MTN-Qhubeka.

So there you have it: Milan - San Remo is the sprinter’s classic except when it’s not. Or when it is won from a small group. Or solo.

That’s why there’s much love for this early season classic. It pretends to be predictable with its long distance and multiple hills - none long enough to tip the advantage to a pure climber.

According to Strava the fastest recorded time up the Poggio (3.6 kilometers long, 3.7% gradient) is seven minutes and three seconds by a Louis Vervaeke. I’m guessing Mr. Vervaeke didn’t start his training ride that day in Milan with a ProTour peloton, so actual times may be different. The Cipressa (5.6% kilometers long, 4% gradient) is the penultimate climb on the Milan-San Remo menu and the time to the summit is clocked at 12 minutes and eight seconds by “Pivens.”

These are power climbs where a huge amount of watts separates the contenders from the pretenders. The riders propel themselves up so fast they hit the brakes as they round the many uphill switchbacks so they don’t bounce off the retaining walls. When was the last time you grabbed a handful of brake because you were climbing so fast around a corner? Yeah, I thought so.

These climbs aren’t especially challenging on their own, but mix in the constant up and down combined with the distance covered you have ascents that quickly ruin the dreams of many a favorite.

This year’s edition was one that was going down in the history books. The terrible weather of snow and rain forced the organizers to wisely neutralize the race, load everyone onto their respective team busses and restart in the town of Cogoleto. This move eliminated the climbs of the Turchino and La Manie, which reduced the race by 47 kilometers. Before the organizers temporarily stopped the race, the typical early publicity-driven breakaway got seven minutes on the peloton. They were given that advantage when the race was restarted – not that it would really matter.

The restart for the main peloton was like the last five laps of a criterium: full gas. Cannondale took to the front and had the field strung out in single file. With slick and windy roads now part of the Milan-San Remo equation, having their five-star favorite Sagan near the front was the move of the day.

While the escapees were rounded up it gave us time to check out who was wearing or using the latest and greatest equipment for the 2013 season. Aero road helmets, while uglier than your drunken uncle, apparently have shown to be an advantage in wind tunnels. Those who had Giro sponsorships were sporting their aero Air Attacks. Taylor Phinney snapped a photo of his before the restart in Cogoleto while still on the BMC team bus - it was covered in ice.

Specialized also had an aero-inspired lid which reminded me of the extraterrestrial monster’s skull from the movie Alien, just without the snapping mandible.

Going old-school in the rain protection department was Eduard Vorganov of Katusha. He had what looked to be plastic wrap around his helmet, which proved to be neither aero nor effective as he was constantly adjusting it. Finally in frustration he tore it off. As Vorganov learned sometimes you need function over fashion. While clear plastic wrap may be a discrete method to keep the rain off your head, it’s not a long term solution under World War I conditions.

Not to be outdone, Sky had their standard ugly-looking Kask aero helmets that I’ve grown accustomed to. What I’d also become accustomed to was Sky at the front on the climb putting the wood to everyone - including their own rider Edvald Boasson Hagen, or EBH to his friends. While the Norwegian rider was off the back they had British rider Ian Stannard going off the front. Finally he was given some free rein. Stannard’s performance on the road to San Remo showed he has future classic-winning potential.

Regardless it was all going to go down on the last climb of the day - the Poggio. This is the climb where you need to check your inhibitions at the door and prepare yourself for cycling’s version of hand to hand combat.

At just 23 years of age Sagan wasn’t afraid to throw his weight around and he rubbed shoulders with his small breakaway group on the ascent of the Poggio. On the descent he displayed his mountain biking skills (which was his entry into cycling) by arcing through the turns with surgical skill.

Equally impressive was Cancellara. He’s been on the top step in San Remo, but also the bridesmaid too many times. The big Swiss rider made it perfectly clear to the press that he wasn’t going to lead Sagan to the altar.

The last kilometers played out perfectly for Gerald Ciolek. The German watched wheels and took advantage of his underdog status. While Peter Sagan and Cancellara were eyeballing each other like a shark might a fat seal, Ciolek was the sucker fish attached to the belly. He followed the Cannondale rider’s wheel and launched off Sagan’s wheel with about 100 meters to go.

This edition of the Milan-San Remo classic is going down in history: Epic weather, hard fought battles, and the underdog taking the win. Oh, and the place where ugly helmets went mainstream.

For our US-based readers we have video highlights from the Vuelta Ciclista a Catalunya all week in our videos section. Watch riders including Bradley Wiggins, Ryder Hesjedal and Joaquim Rodriguez as they battle under the warm Spanish sun - wearing nicer lids than the riders did in Milan-San Remo. Also, riders such as David Zabriskie, Christian Vande Velde and Tom Danielson are returning to the pro peloton in this race after their six month doping-related suspensions.

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