Milan-San Remo (MSR) is known locally as “La classica di Primavera”  (“the Spring Classic”) — the race that ushers in the Spring Classics season. From its start on the Piazza Castello to the finish on the Via Roma, the 298km race is the longest one-day race on the UCI calendar, and one that every year confirms its reputation as a great race. It does so by providing riders with opportunities for reckless descents, crazy breakaways, gut-churning efforts on the climbs, and buffalo-charging bunch-sprint finishes.

A great story can be found in every one of the 103 editions of the race. Among the greatest is that of Fausto Coppi (known as “Il campionissimo”, or “champion of champions”) who was so dominant in 1946 that he won by 14 minutes, even with an unscheduled stop. According to a fascinating article in Italymag.co.uk Coppi “slowed down and got off his bike. Gingerly placing his bike against a railing, he walked in, ordered an espresso, drank up, paid and left”. According to ItalyMag a radio commentator said at the time, “First: Fausto Coppi … whilst we wait for the second, we’re going to play some nice music.”

More recently, Aussies have had success in MSR, with Matthew Harley Goss (2011) and Simon Gerrans (2012) taking the ultimate prize in consecutive years. No American has ever won this race, and only three Dutchmen have been victorious.


 
The greatest ever, Eddy Merckx, won it seven times, Erik Zabel and Gino Bartoli claimed four victories each, but no-one has ever won it three times in a row. The Italians have won their race 50 times, more recently with the bickering Pippo Pozzato and Alessandro “Ale-Jet” Petacchi.

The climbs

Although the race seems very traditional, and has finished on the Via Roma every year since 1949, its main climbs — the Poggio and La Cipressa — were only added in 1960 and 1982 respectively. Even without those climbs it’s a long, long day.
 
The first climb is not until 142km in, when the Passo del Turchino crests into the wide open mouth of an ominous tunnel that then spits the riders out down a sharp descent to Genoa. At the 270km mark, La Cipressa maxes out at a 9% gradient, averaging 4.1% over nearly 6km. It’s a 4km descent before it flattens off for another 9 km means the “chancers” often make their moves here.

The final climb, the Poggio, peaks just after the 291km mark having reached an 8% gradient on its 3.7km-long slope. The Poggio is not actually a difficult climb, but again it’s the riders that make it special. Use of the big ring make it a perfect place to drop the bunch, or curb the chances of a breakaway. The winding 3.3km descent onto a flat 4km run around the port makes this a tantalising section for good bike handlers and sprinters especially.

How the race is won, and lost

At the 1986 MSR, as the break was caught on the Poggio, multiple Giro stage winner Mario Beccia attacked. Taking his chance, Greg LeMond went with him and ground it out in the big ring. The two stuck together down the descent but were soon joined by a dark shadow. After some foxing, Sean Kelly jumped them and took the win over LeMond and Beccia.

Greg LeMond goes on the attack in the 1986 Milan-San Remo.

Attacking on the Poggio in 1992, Italian capitano Moreno Argentin was determined to take his first win in the MSR. He marshalled his team of Gregarios to set a relentless pace and hunt down every attack. Against him were the likes of Kelly, Museeuw, Jalabert, Lemond, Ballerini, Madiot, Alcala, Roche and Cippolini.

The Team Ariostea riders were dogged as they chased down the dangerous Jesper Skibby on the Capo Berta. Then Frenchman Eric Boyer went at the foot of the Poggio, and was caught as well. At this point, Argentin launched himself and had a gap of several seconds heading down into San Remo. The only one to respond was Sean Kelly, who swung down through the hairpin bends like a maniac, his back wheel sliding out several times as he desperately dragged those seconds back.

On the start of the Via Roma, an exasperated Argentin turned to see Kelly on his wheel and launched a final, but forlorn, sprint. Kelly passed him easily and crossed the line to take his second MSR ahead of the fast closing bunch.

Andrei Tchmil looks back before winning the 1999 Milan-San Remo.

Many sprinters have won at Milan-San Remo, but victories have also come from classic breakaways. Of those breakaways, the best ones in my mind were Simon Gerrans’ canny use of Cancellara’s attack last year, and before that Cancellara’s win in 2008. Both times the win was decided by an awesome display of power and descending skills, with Gerrans throwing in smarts and sheer guts as well.

Coming to the line in 1999, Andre Tchmil looked back under his arms (see image above) to see a thunderous wall of riders coming at him. Race favourite Marco Pantani had earlier attacked on La Cipressa, but was then caught and marked out. Several more attacks went before 1996 winner Italian Gabriele Colombo hit them hard with about 8km to go. A small group made the catch, and with 600m to go the Russian with a Belgian passport, Tchmil, made his do-or-die effort. Surprising those around him and the sprinters close behind, victory was his.

At the 2004 Milan-San Remo, the great sprinter Erik Zabel raised his arms in a victory salute, grasping for a fifth title that would rank him as one of the immortals. As he raised his right arm, Oscar “the Cat” Freire threw his bike at the finish line like a petulant tennis player throwing his racquet. In surely the cheekiest win ever, the photo finish (see below) showed Freire had snatched the win by a mere 3cm margin, the first of his three wins in the race.

Erik Zabel celebrates rather prematurely as he is beaten on the line by Oscar Freire in 2004.

The Aussies

Apart from Mark Renshaw, Simon Gerrans and Matthew Goss, the Aussies in Sunday’s race will be on domestique duties – David Tanner, Michael Rogers, Stuart O’Grady, and Baden Cooke. Heinrich Haussler will be looking to erase his heart-breaking second place to Mark Cavendish in 2009, a result that Haussler has acknowledged he finds hard to forget.

So, who will win?

The list of potential winners this year is as long as the list of pretenders in my cycling bunch: huge. Nibali is coming straight off his Tirreno-Adriatico win, Fabian Cancellara looked the goods at Strada Bianchi and is sure to dictate part of the race. Philippe Gilbert, Taylor Phinney, Tyler Farrar, and even John Degenkolb should go well. And we shouldn’t discount riders like Sylvain Chavanel, Tom Boonen and Mark Cavendish. Outsiders might include Blanco’s Tom Slagter (who won the Tour Down Under in January) and even Vini Fantini’s Mauro Santambrogio.

But for me, Peter Sagan, who came fourth in 2012, is the outright favourite. He’s been in great form since winning two stages at the Tour of Oman earlier this year, and since then he’s finished second in Strade Bianche and won two stages at Tirreno-Adriatico. His exquisite mix of power and ability could well see him cross the line first and if he does, I’ll be expecting another unique victory salute from him.