Riding Milan San-Remo 2018: tackling the crucial closing kilometres just hours before the pros

Small climbs, big impact: riding the crux of La Primavera with former winner Paolo Bettini

La Primavera, the first Monument of the year, Milan-San Remo, traditionally takes place on the last weekend of winter and a combination of the length – 298km to be exact – unpredictable weather, and a denouement featuring several small climbs, all adds up to some epic racing.

The Tre Capi, the Cipressa and the Poggio may be far from the biggest climbs the WorldTour’s pros take on, but they are as intrinsically linked to cycling as any Alpine or Pyrenean giant. After all, as former winner Paolo Bettini points out, “The last 60 kilometres is the real Milan-San Remo; the rest you don’t worry about.”

Just hours before the pros took on the very same course, we managed to secure the 2003 winner – and former world and Olympic champion – Bettini as a guide for those crucial closing kilometres.

The final 60km of Milan-San Remo are where the ‘real’ race is, according to 2003 winner Paolo Bettini. We took on the Tre Capi, Cipressa and Poggio with the former world champion as our guide (Pic: Joseph Delves/Factory Media)

“It’s a special race,” Bettini reflects fondly. “Every rider thinks he can win, so you never know until the very end.”

While cutting out the majority of the course for our ride is definitely cheating, in our defence, at over seven hours long, even the most hardcore fans don’t bother tuning in to the early coverage.

In fact traditionally the first four-fifths of the distance are undertaken at a pace unlikely to trouble the average clubrun, as riders look to conserve energy and let the break get itself some TV time. This means that while the day’s biggest climb is the Passo Del Turchino, coming just before the halfway point it has almost zero effect on the race.

Tre Capi: “Here the race begins”

And so, taking Bettini at his word, we join the coast road at Alassio, just before the consecutive lumps of Capo Mele and Capo Cervo alert riders that things are about to get going in earnest.

A few kilometres further on, Capo Berta – the last of the Tre Capi – is steep enough for your legs to notice, but not enough to cause the pack to split. While we go at our own pace, for the riders coming through later there will be no respite from its base until the line. “Here the race begins,” Bettini says.

Going retro is one way of heightening the difficulty of Milan-San Remo’s climbs (Pic: Joseph Delves/Factory Media)

Recreating the spirit of its early editions, on our way up we pass a time-warp peloton of riders on ancient bikes. Straining against their fixed-gearing they make the climb look more difficult than it feels on a modern bike.  

Following the straight coast road immediately after, the likelihood of a headwind and a high tempo tends to keep everyone in check for the next nine kilometres. Passing the towns of Imperia Oneglia and San Lorenzo, just west of the latter the route leaves the main road and swings onto the Cipressa climb.

The Cipressa

Behind us the pro peloton is slogging through heavy rain, yet on the coast the sun has burned through the early clouds and the Cipressa is looking pretty as we turn onto it.

Barely worth shifting down into the small chainring for, without the pressure of a director sportive yelling at you it’s an easy spin that seems at odds with the desperation it engenders in the race.

As we climb, the hardest element is swerving the wet painted slogans left behind by the Marco Canola fanclub which dot the tarmac. Still we’re lucky having neither the bunch nor the race’s cumulative distance to contend with.

“Even for professionals it’s a long day,” explains Bettini. “The climbs are small, but it’s a 300 kilometre race, so they feel much harder.”

As the peloton battled through the rain outside of Milan, the sun was beating down on the coast (Pic: Joseph Delves/Factory Media)

Averaging four per cent over 5.6 kilometres, while the Cipressa’s stats may not be scary, the pace at which the pros ride it is.

Taken at over 30km/h it’s long enough for the lighter riders to hurt the powerhouse sprinters. A graveyard of ambition, every year several find their race over here, well short of the finish line.

More obviously formidable, even on our route recce, is the descent. Composed of unsettling corners, coming straight after the climb it’s attacked with little regard to safety as those ahead seek to conclusively bury their rivals, and anyone dropped tries to chase back on.

The last spot at which the race might ignite, from here the pace won’t let up as the remaining riders fight in out to hit the base of the Poggio towards the front.

The Poggio: a last and best chance

The inevitability of what happens next doesn’t make it any easier for the teams to control, or less exciting to watch. Anyone with anything left will attack on the final climb, the Poggio.

But with just 3.7km of climbing, at a gradient less than four per cent average, and the bunch in the big ring, the best most escapees can hope for is to snatch half a minute – though as we crest the Poggio,we soon discover another reason for wanting to be out front on your own.

Requiring all the space you can get, the descent is not one you’d want to tackle as a group. Having attacked early on the climb, when he railed down the Poggio in 2003, Bettini seemed to skim the inside of each corner with a helmet or elbow. “It’s a very difficult descent, with corners that get tighter as you go through them,” he says. “In the race you have to go with everything you have.”

“The climbs are small, but the day is long,” says Paolo Bettini (Pic: Joseph Delves/Factory Media)

With the road looking out over the sea, there’s no time to focus on anything other than the next turn. Retaining walls leave some corners tricky to see around, while strategic crash matts improve your chances of survival but do little to inspire confidence.

With the pack tending to descend slower than any escapee, it is on the final flat 5.5 km where the tables turn as the bunch looks to slice away any advantage garnered. “If you make it off the Poggio alone, from there you don’t look back,” says Bettini.

A very long final five kilometres

On the wide road into San Remo the bunch won’t often lose sight of their prey, who’s final advantage is the last abrupt turn onto the Via Roma. Well under the flamme rouge, even if the teams have made the catch the last chicane doesn’t lend itself to an orderly leadout.

Now enclosed between the barriers and imagining ourselves dangling just ahead of the chasing pack, for us the final straight is an easy roll, but for those racing it must seem an eternity. When we reach its end the die-hard fans have already staked their spots on the finish line, hours ahead of the race’s arrival.

Our mock-victory sprint completed we ditch the bikes and with my hotel balcony overlooking the finish everyone piles upstairs and we turn on the telly in time to see the riders pass though Allasio where we started the day.

First the early climbs do their work, ending the hopes of pure sprinter Marcel Kittel (Katusha–Alpecin), while several crashes, including that suffered by Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) – which send him somersaulting spectacularly onto the tarmac over a bollard – show how incredibly difficult what we found to be an easy ride must be at race-pace.

Get off the Poggio in front, and don’t turn look back until you hit San Remo’s tightly-packed streets (Pic: Joseph Delves/Factory Media)

As the riders hit the Poggio, through the window the crowd starts roaring when they hear the Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain–Merida) has made a break. Descending faster than seems possible, by the bottom he’s just nine seconds advantage, only enough for the home fans to think he’s got a chance.

Yet a kilometre later he’s actually added seconds and the chasers are looking at each other. The perennial favorite Peter Sagan (Bora–Hansgrohe) promised he wasn’t going to pull anyone to the line this season. It takes another kilometre or two for the bunch to realise he wasn’t lying.

Meanwhile Nibali is still away. We pile out onto the rickety balcony to see him make it round the final corner just ahead of the charging bunch.

With hardly time to turn and look up the road the bunch pass underneath within the same second. For the first time Nibali allows himself a glance behind, finding just enough time to lift his hands as the chasers, led by Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) rush past just metres too late.

Party time in San Remo

A Grand Tour rider and climbing specialist, few would have put money on Nibali, even in gambling mad San Remo. Correspondingly the town goes nuts.

With the weather still balmy to celebrate the win it transforms from out-of-season seaside resort to full Rivera glamour. Nibali gets mobbed, Sagan gets mobbed.

Everyone decamps to the team’s coaches in the pit area. Adults grab bottles and caps like they were kids. Kids try and sneak onto the buses. No one seems much to care.

Later I hear from someone on the Bora-Hansgrohe bus that Nibali had tried to agree with Sagan to breakaway together.

A room with a view as Vincenzo Nibali claims victory (Pic: Sportful)

With Sagan the better sprinter this would almost certainly have relegated Nibali to a still remarkable second place. Instead the World Champion let him go alone, assuming a bunch sprint was the more bankable strategy.

Yet, with Sagan refusing to drag the race back together, the rest of the peloton realised too late there’d be no free ride this time. Nibali bagged an amazing victory. The Italian fans got the result they wanted, and Sagan put everyone on notice for the rest of the season.

It was likely a good strategy for both, and the fans outside their two buses outnumbered those between the rest combined.

Joseph Delves was a guest of Sportful, clothing sponsor of Vincenzo Nibali’s Bahrain-Merida team and Peter Sagan’s Bora–Hansgrohe squad

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