With one of the richest heritages in all of cycling, Milan San Remo is so much more than just the infectious final hour of racing that most people reduce it to on their TV screens. It’s also more than purely a barometer for condition, and more than a seven-hour race with a peloton that’s more elastic than ever. The first Monument of the year is an obstinate child that won’t respect the seasons.
From the early morning mist in Milan that lifts to cast a warm glow over the Citadel to the sprawling, exuberant and unashamedly touristy San Remo, the first Monument of 2017 proved once more to have a cyclist’s repertoire covered. The sunken, almost oppressive greyness of the first major feed zone led into the unrelenting onslaught of those minor yet major climbs, where Sagan launched his fearsome attack, countered only by Kwiatkowski’s sprint.
With seven hours to fill, it’s a prime race for eavesdropping. Here’s what we heard on route:
As far as race starts go, the centre of Milan is pretty spectacular, although the subsequent hundred or so kilometres are, as always, awash with indistinguishable apartment blocks, petrol stations and long straight, unassuming roads that beg for attacks.
You dip into a local bar for a quick caffeine fix. It’s a seven hour race, after all. There’ll be a handful of old men sat by the door, crumpled shirts, flat caps and thick cardigans. A pile of cards are strewn across the table and there’s a Saturday edition of La Gazzetta folded in the centre. They sporadically lift their necks to gaze at the fuzzy television screen. Milan San Remo is showing. They’ve watched it every year for decades. Is it really necessary to discuss the current breakaway? Is that the local hero from Nippo-Vini Fantini up there? Will the barman automatically refill their rapidly diminishing bowl of crisps? Will anyone have to go home before the race is over?
At the first major feed station, there’s the regular set-up with a horde of Italy’s once championed cyclists and rugged old men. There’ll be back-patting and applauding until the early hours. They have a modest bravado and nonchalant expertise about the race and those champions amongst them. As soon as the souvenir-touting seller arrives with his 5 euro wares, they’ll scramble for the goods like school kids. After the hustle, they tell you with bemusement that they once sat there until 5 pm on the year that it snowed and the riders were shipped past in a bus.
There will also be five or so women, all huddled in puffa coats, furiously stamping their feet to keep warm. They wonder when the race is due to arrive. They point at people they suspect might be in the know. You can tell them the expected times, as you have the road book. They’re grateful and compliment you on your Italian.
A lone father and his young daughter pedal past with broad grins. The pair are riding further than usual to test the waters and inject some more passion into their hobby. It’s working for them both.
Somewhat absurdly, the juniors from the local mountain club patrol the road as they wait for the arrival of the peloton. Their energy verges on tiresome as they pass repeatedly. Each time it’s evident that another one is playing the role of grand champion. The helicopter comes into sight and they decide to find a bathroom.
At the finish now, one gelato down, many more to go. And, this being 2017, the number of selfie sticks being brandished has increased. People hang over the railings, the commentator tries to inject some calm, explaining that the riders are doing their job and that mobile phones can get in the way. A look at Instagram afterwards reveals that his efforts were largely futile. The number of selfies is extraordinary. You can just make out the conversation of the group behind you. The words ‘Sagan’ and ‘mental’ are on heavy rotation.
The photographers grumble, as always, they’ve struggled with the logistics of this race. It’s an ugly race, they say, but that’s just the ones who didn’t make the Poggio cut-off or find their way onto the coast road. Not worth shooting, says another.
But they’re all stoked. The atmosphere is electric. Where else would you want to be? This is the first Monument, after all.
Words: Emmie Collinge Photos: Emmie Collinge, Phil Gail