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Studying Sanremo 1992: Sean Kelly’s downhill attack

With Milano-Sanremo only days away, we are taking a look back at some of the most memorable editions of “La Primavera,” the season’s first monument. The race has been won in a variety of ways, ranging from bunch sprints to bold solo attacks. What can we learn from the history of this long and unpredictable classic race?

The spring of 1992 fell at the tail-end of King Kelly’s reign, but the Irishman had a few more tricks up his sleeve. Kelly, a sprinter more in the mold of Peter Sagan than Marcel Kittel, had only won “La Primavera” once before, in 1986. The two-time Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Paris-Roubaix winner would go on to retire in 1994. So this was one of his last shots at a monument.

What happened? A relatively large group came into the base of the Poggio behind lone leader Eric Boyer. Then the real attacks began: Moreno Argentin shot off the front, standing out of the saddle in in a massive gear. Maurizio Fondriest, who would win the following year, made a last ditch effort to chase down his fellow Italian, but Argentin still held a handful of seconds.

Enter Kelly. He’s easy to spot in the blue, flying out of the front of the main group just as it’s about to crest the top of the Poggio. Kelly had a small gap over the top, just a few bike lengths. Argentin still had eight seconds, or about one switchback’s advantage.

The Poggio descent is a series of long, high-speed straights followed by narrow, hairpin switchbacks. It’s the kind of descent that can certainly be used to make up time — if you’re bold enough. Kelly was. He pulled back the eight seconds on Argentin just as the two hit the flat final kilometer. Then came the sprint, and they didn’t call him King Kelly for nothing.

What we learned from the race: The race is useful if we apply modern-day analogs to the scenario. Argentin was a strong climber, but not a slight GC man. He won Flanders and four editions of Liège and rode as high as sixth in the Giro d’Italia. He had a sprint but not a world-beating one. Today, his position is filled by men like Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) and Simon Gerrans (Orica-Scott).

Kelly was the Sagan of his day. He was a sprinter who could win out of a bunch if he had to, but with the strength to go it alone or break the race into small groups. He was an incredible descender. He won Roubaix, Liège, Lombardia, and 16 stages of the Vuelta a España.

Most of all, we learned that Milano-Sanremo can be won on the descent of the Poggio, if a rider is daring and able. And that it’s going to be very tough to beat Sagan.

Could it play out this way again? Absolutely. The finish straight is a bit longer these days, but it’s proof that a small gap on the Poggio can be enough to hang on, particularly if there aren’t any cat-and-mouse games played in the final few hundred meters.

There are only two riders who, on paper, have the skill to execute a downhill attack like the one Kelly used to win. The first is Sagan, and the second is Vincenzo Nibali. Unfortunately for fans, Nibali won’t be racing the 2017 Milano-Sanremo.

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