Spring Classics: Milan-San Remo

It has been a bitterly cold winter. Both physically and mentally; the mental aspect being me at home without a job, living in uncertainty. Physically, the cold Siberian winds ravaged Europe, freezing everything in their path. I went for a run in almost a foot of snow and it was so hard to find my footing, because every single crevasse on the road was full of snow
Even the lake froze.
While waiting for a job, I was figuring out things to do with the time on my hand along with running miles on end. One thing I really enjoyed doing last summer was blogging about the Tour De France, watching each stage from start to finish, and then sharing the “race report” and my insights. Some people really like it and well, I really liked what I did, so I thought I’d do more of it! You can read about it here.
Broadly speaking, the UCI world tour is divided into 2 sections: a.) One Day races b.) Tours

One Day races are 100 mile + races, which require you to go all out over a period of 5-6 hours, often in terrible conditions while Tours are stage races, which include some sprint finish days, some climbing and some Time Trials. And then when we expand on the tours, there are some shorter tours like the Tour Down Under, Tour of California, Tour of Oman etc. and then there are the prestigious Grand Tours, the most famous being “Le Tour De France” in July, along with Giro De Italia & Vuelta A Espana.

Winning the grand tour is a highly prestigious thing, especially since Lance Armstrong brought it into the media attention in 1999. Covering ~2500 miles (4000 kms) is no mean feat but doing that in 3 weeks at an average of 40 kmph, including hills, I mean, that’s something. The Grand Tours are more of team events, than individual efforts. If you have been following cycling for long, you know that Chris Froome didn’t sit infront of the bike all day pushing the pace. It was Michal Kwiatkowski and Team Sky, who did most of the work, pushing the pace of the Peloton, tiring out the other teams. Michal, the 2014 UCI World champion was infact so dedicated, he threw away a pair of his Oakley Sunglasses by the hillside.

These teammates of Grand Tour winners are great racers in their own regard. Mostly, they are brilliant one day racers. Like the great man, Peter Sagan. 3 World Championships under his belt along with 100s of wins, he doesn’t compete for the overall victory during the Tour De France, but instead compiles points in the form of Intermediate sprints and Sprint finishes to take the Green Jersey.

When the ice begins to thaw, and days begin to get longer, it marks the start of the spring classics in cycling. These are the most prestigious one-day cycling races in the world, they are held in Europe (in parts of France, Netherlands, Belgium and Italy) and they are brutal races.  Among them, 5 form the “Monuments”: 1.) Milan San Remo 2.) Tour of Flanders 3.) Paris-Roubaix 4.) Liege-Bastonge-Liege 5.) Giro di Lombardia.

These are dirty races, in dirty weather and only the legends win them. You need have incredible bike skills, incredible power and well, luck to win these.

Paris-Roubaix, the badass race which finishes on a track in Roubaix boasts of brutal cobbled sections, which destroy the rides. George Hincapie, Lance Armstrong’s right-hand man and one of the greatest one-day riders, came close MANY times to win Roubaix, only to be flatted in the middle of nowhere due to cobbles and without his team surrounding him.

When it rains, Roubaix looks like the picture above and it is a brutal affair. Infact, there is a beautiful movie “A Sunday in Hell” which covers Paris-Roubaix 1976.

Then on the other side is Liege Bastonge Liege, the oldest monument (started in 1892), a race without cobbles but so many climbs even the pros leave their bikes and start climbing on foot.

It is 250-260 kms long and it barely has a meter of flat stretch on it. Read about the climbs here.

And then there is the Tour of Flanders. It isn’t as cobbled as Roubaix or as hilly as Liege, but it combines the best of both worlds.

However, today was the day of the 1st monument of the year. Milan San Remo, a 290+ km jaunt from Milan to the coastal town of San Remo making it the longest professional one-day race of the year.

It isn't very "hilly", infact it is mostly along the coast on a pancake flat route peppered with some climbs until at around 280k, you hit the infamous "Poggio" climb. Even though it isn't brutally steep (3.7% for 4k), at 280k this hill often makes or breaks the race.

People who do follow cycle racing, must remember last year's San Remo finish line, where Michal Kwiatkowski after making Peter Sagan push for the finish line, made his move
edging just ahead at the chequered flag.

Obviously, Peter wasn't very happy with it and before the race this year there was a nice little war of words between Kwiato and Sagan, with Sagan saying "If I win like that, I wouldn't be happy with my performance"  to which Kwiato quipped "Sometimes you don't win the race by being the strongest, you need to be the smartest".

Trash talking, spring classic, rainy weather, climbing? BRING IT ON!!

There were many favourites for today's race including the Sagan, Kwiato, Julian Alaphilipe, Alexander Kristoff, Mark Cavendish (crashandbitch, amirite?), Caleb Ewan, Vincenzo Nibali, Greg Van Avermaet.

As the race started, 9 riders took off including : 
Mirco Maestri (Bardiani CSF) , Lorenzo Rota (Bardiani CSF), Evgeny Koberniak (Gazprom Rusvelo), Guy Sagiv (Israel Cycling Academy), Dennis Van Winden (Israel Cycling Academy), Sho Hatsuyama (Nippo-Vini Fantini), Charles Planet (Novo Nordisk), Matteo Bono (UAE Team Emirates) & Jacopo Mosca (Wilier Selle Italia) and they were up by 3 minutes within the 1st 15k.

Rain continued to pelt the riders as the gap grew to 5 minutes, before Sagan's Bora Hansgrohe teammates headed the Peloton and stabilised the gap. The rain stopped at around 1.5 hours into the race as the gap grew to 7 minutes, though nothing dramatic happened. Then Eurosport began to stream (in GERMAN, because I am in Switzerland) and so I was able to take a screengrab of the break.

Rain began to fall quite heavily again and conditions got pretty tricky.

Obviously this saw some crashes including Katusha's Alexander Kristoff, Lotto jumbo's Andre Greipel, while Lukasz Wizniowski from Team Sky had to abandon the race. 
Peter's brother Juraj Sagan lead the peloton cutting into the lead of the breakaway, as the peloton raced along the beautiful Italian cost.

The sun made it's appearance at 60k to go, j
ackets and shoe covers began to come off with the peloton cutting down the lead of the breakaway down to under 3 minutes and under 2 minutes with less than 50k to go.

The gap continued to drop as the enforcers from the race favourites teams began to push and finally dropped to less than a minute with 41k to go.

Sagan giving a different kind of a push.

With the road twisting and turning there was a crash with 40k to go, including Alexander Vlasov, Dan McLay and Simon Clarke. With 37.3k to go, the gap came down to 30 seconds(400 meters). Sprint King, Marcel Kittel was seen struggling on the climbs while French national champ, Arnaud Demare was in good shape. The gap dropped to a mere 200 meters with 34.4k to go as the riders went through some narrow streets.

4 riders : Maestri, Van Winden, Rota and Bono (3 of them Italians) in the front began to push but they were all but caught by 30k to go.

With 27k to go, the famous Cipressa climb started. Vincenzo Nibali attacked, with Sagan, Demare, even Greipel, Cavendish all there. The only big casualty was Katusha's Marcel Kittel, who was dropped at the base of the climb. FDJ's Iganatas Konavalovas pushed the pace up the Cipressa in a 30 kmph headwind. Soon, Dylan Van Baarle from Team Sky took up the front trying to break up the big group by pushing the pace, as Caleb Ewan and Sagan remained safely tucked in 10th and 20th place. Sky was unable to break the group as a huge bunch of riders made up to the top of Cipressa with 21.3k to go.

Teams began to push as they appoached the Poggio. With 15k to go, the clock showed almost 7 hours of racing had been completed. A surprising face to see at the front was Michael Matthews (Sunweb), who has had a bad year so far having finished no race this year. A rider of his calibre can win this race and it was a good to see him riding at the front.

There were no favourties as yet with the riders approaching the Poggio and then, with 10k to go, a HUGE CRASH.
Mark Cavendish has been having a bad year, having already crashed twice and he went down again today, hitting a piece of road furniture and somersaulting over on to the road.
The guy in the air is Cavendish.

9.1k to go, the climb began as German Champion, Bora Hansgrohe's Marcus Burghardt began to push up the climb opening a significant gap, before he was caught by BMC's Jean Pierre Drucker.
Behind Drucker, the peloton was being controlled by Baharain Merida and no one really would have expected what would happen next.

There was an attack by Latvian National Champion, Krits Neilands and behind him, like an unmarked football striker, went the 2014 Tour De France champion and the winner of 2017 Giro Di Lombardia, Vincenzo Nibali, while the Baharain Merida team slowed the peloton down, allowing the 2 men to create a gap.

After a close fight at the Giro Di Italia last year, my heart has gone out to the man who has continued to fight after being disrespected by many. A long time has passed since the last Italian winner (2006, Filippo Pozzato) and today Nibali rode up the hill like a man who wanted to prove the world wrong.

He broke Neilands as he pumped up the hill, pushing hard and opening huge gap on the group behind, which was in shock. Matteo Trentin tried to follow Nibali, but he was in a league of his own as he climbed the Poggio, trying to win the race that made him fall in love with cycling as a young kid. Behind them, there was a game of who'll go first, as other riders waited for Sagan to start the chase.

"The Shark of Messina, as he is popularly known hit the sunny decent to San Remo with an 11 second lead, which technically would be enough to win him the race(as most of the race is downhill from there, followed by a short, flat section). Nibali is a great descender and he showed it even as Sagan and Kwiatkowski tried to push on behind him. With 4.4k to go the lead grew to 13 seconds, as Matteo Trentin continued his pursuit of Nibali.

The gap was down to 9 seconds at 2.7k to go as Nibali entered the town. Kwiato, Trentin, Sagan all tried to push as Nibali rode on in agony, after 288 kms of riding at over 40 kms an hour, and a day marred with 27-30 kmph headwinds. He kept on pushing and pushing as the flame rouge (last kilometer) approached.

Nibali still lead with 750 meters to go as a big group converged behind him, would it be a heartbreak for the shark?

His body seemed to be fading, but with 500 meters to go, a second wind. All of the agony, all of suffering seemed to fade away as the shark, buoyed by the Italian crowd, took a small glance back at the peloton which wouldn't be able to catch him after all. He clamped his jaw and raised his hands in the air. Bravissmo Vincezo Nibali!

Trust me, I haven't seen such a nerve-racking finish in ages. Last time something similar happened, Maciej Bodnar, lead the race just until 200 meters before the finish line, and then was caught at the Tour De France. I hoped there was no heartbreak today and it wasn't, but my heart rate went upto 130 just watching the events unfold.

It was a beautiful finish, Caleb Ewan took 2nd place, Demare 3rd, Sagan finished 6th and Kwiato 11th.

If this is the start of the Spring classics, I am sure as hell looking forward to the entire season. And for y'all who listen to Lance Armstrong's Stages podcast, he'll be doing a podcast on it too. On Monday. (I asked him on Instagram and he replied):

See y'all real soon! Till then train hard! And thanks for reading!


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