By John Wilcockson

Well-timed: Andreï Tchmil made his big move in the final kilometer in 1999

Photo: AFP (file photo)

The season’s first UCI ProTour classic, Milan-San Remo, which takes place this Saturday for the 97th time, is nowadays regarded as a sprinters’ race. That’s because in the past nine years a mass sprint finish has been avoided only twice. In 1999, an inspired Andreï Tchmil made a solo, final-kilometer attack to hold off a 68-strong pack by less than a second. And in 2003, Paolo Bettini held tough with breakaway partners Mirko Celestino and Luca Paolini to win, 11 seconds ahead of a chasing 68-man peloton.

The past two years, Oscar Freire and Alessandro Petacchi scored their sprint victories ahead of front groups that numbered 65 and 53 riders respectively. But Milan-San Remo is not really a sprinters’ event. In fact, over the years, the Italian organizers, RCS, have often made the course more challenging precisely to avoid the “unwanted” mass sprint.

Founded in 1907, the Primavera was more than challenging in its early years thanks to a 280km distance combined with rough roads and frequent rough weather. In 1910, for instance, only four of the 63 starters survived a bitterly cold April day. They set off in low temperatures from Milan and headed south on rutted dirt roads toward the major climb over the Apennines at the halfway mark. Snow was in the forecast.

As temperatures plummeted, the snow set in over the 1745-foot Turchino Pass. Its descent was glacial, with the wind blowing snow into drifts 8 inches deep. The survivors, including eventual winner Eugène Christophe of France, had to dismount and push their heavy bikes through the drifting snow. Racing was secondary at that point. Milan-San Remo was becoming a matter of life and death.

After collapsing from the arctic conditions, a frigid Christophe was led by a local villager to a roadside inn, where the patron removed the French rider’s wet, frozen clothes, wrapped him in a blanket and plied him with hot grog. When feeling returned to his body after a half-hour, Christophe returned to his bike and headed south through the snow.

The very presence of defending champion Alessandro Petacchi may have defined this year's route.

The very presence of defending champion Alessandro Petacchi may have defined this year’s route.

Photo: Graham Watson file photo

On reaching the coast road of the Italian Riviera at the foot of the pass, conditions became brighter and Christophe, age 25, soon overtook the handful of riders who had passed him during his stop at the inn. He arrived in San Remo an hour before the runner-up, but he was still suffering from frostbite and spent the next month recovering in a clinic before he could ride his bike again.

Conditions were often harsh over the following three decades, and field-sprint finishes didn’t exist. In 1939, on another day of cold rain and snow, just 54 of the 145 starters finished the race. The winner, Italian great Gino Bartali, out-sprinted a breakaway group of five, while the final few finishers arrived more than an hour behind the leaders.

Following World War II, Bartali and his Italian rival Fausto Coppi both scored memorable wins after long solo breakaways — Bartali took it by four minutes in 1947, while Coppi won by 14 minutes in 1946, five minutes in 1948 and four minutes in 1949. But things changed in the 1950s, by which time the war-ravaged roads had been repaired, the number of starters mushroomed, and the teams became much better organized to tackle a race of this length.

The result was the end of solo victories and a run of seven mass finishes in 10 years — including a 90-man sprint into San Remo in 1959. That was too much for the organizers and so they decided in 1960 to make the traditional point-to-point course a little harder by inserting an extra climb just before the finish.

The Poggio makes a difference
The new climb, the Poggio, rises 466 feet in 3 kilometers over a series of switchbacks before dropping steeply into the streets of San Remo for the flat 2.4km run-in to the finish line on the Via Roma. The late climb (and descent) did make a difference, and there wasn’t another field sprint for 20 years.

The race was taken in a series of small breakaway groups in the early 1960s; and then the incomparable Eddy Merckx brought a completely new dynamic to Milan-San Remo. By winning the race seven times between 1966 and 1976, Merckx made use of the Poggio (particularly its steep, sinuous descent) to escape from the lead pack or the peloton year after year.

His four solo wins were by 12 seconds over a 65-strong pack in 1969, by 30 seconds over half-a-dozen chasers in 1971, by nine seconds over 11 chasers in 1972 and by 28 seconds over a 14-man group in 1976. They were spectacular finales to Milan-San Remo, but Merckx’s charisma masked a reality: the pack reaching the foot of the Poggio was getting bigger and bigger. A classic that still has 100 riders together 10km from the finish is not a true classic.

The organizers were particularly upset with the 1980 edition, held in cold weather with a sunny finale, which lacked any decisive attacks and ended in a 46-man field sprint. It didn’t help that the winner was a journeyman sprinter, Pierino Gavazzi, who would never again take a major classic victory.

The Cipressa arrives
Determined to find another new climb to break up the pack before it reached the Poggio, the organizers started looking at several hills that bordered the coastal road along the Mediterranean. They eventually came up with the Cipressa, 16km back down the coast from the Poggio. Climbing 764 feet in just over 5km, it was a serious obstacle, and it was added to the Milan-San Remo course in 1982, to produce the current race distance of 294km.

With both the Cipressa and the Poggio to break things up in the final 30km, there was no sign of a field sprint for the next 15 years. In that time, small breakaway groups inevitably formed each year and produced some wonderful, big-name winners through the 1980s and early-1990s: Italian superstars Giuseppe Saronni, Francesco Moser, Gianni Bugno, Claudio Chiappucci and Maurizio Fondriest all won at San Remo, while foreign standouts Sean Kelly and Laurent Fignon each took two victories.

But entering the late-1990s, the international peloton was again reaching a higher level of fitness, and the even-better-organized teams made it harder and harder for breakaways to succeed. With the exceptions of Tchmil in ’99 and Bettini in ’03, every race since 1997 has ended in a mass sprint, with four wins for Erik Zabel and one each for Mario Cipollini, Oscar Freire and Alessandro Petacchi.

This year, another field sprint is expected. Petacchi, Zabel, Freire are again candidates to win, along with sprinters like Tom Boonen, Robbie McEwen and Thor Hushovd. But it could be the last big sprint on the Via Roma, at least far a while. That’s because the organizers are again planning to add a new climb to make the finale more challenging.

And the Pompeiana?
The new climb, said to be the Pompeiana, would come between the Cipressa and Poggio, which would mean moving the start of the race out of central Milan to keep the distance under 300km. There were rumors this past winter that the new climb would be included this year, but a couple of factors seem to have changed the organizers’ minds.

First, Milan-San Remo celebrates its centennial in 2007 and, with the Italians being big on history, it seems inconceivable that they would move the start away from its traditional starting point before such an important anniversary. Second, defending champion Petacchi is a big crowd favorite in Italy, and race organizer RCS (which also runs the Giro d’Italia) was unhappy when Petacchi said he probably wouldn’t start the extremely mountainous 2006 Giro. Apparently, a deal was struck whereby the sprinter would ride the Giro as long as the course for Milan-San Remo remained untouched.

It seems certain though that, just like the Poggio in 1960 and Cipressa in 1982, the new climb will be added by 2008. The race start would be moved 30km south of Milan to the city of Pavia and the race distance would probably come in at about 280km. The added climb would spell the end of mass-sprint finishes because the Pompeiana would begin immediately after the Cipressa (also bringing this climb more into play). The new climb heads inland for about 6km and tops out 1000 feet above the coast road with pitches as steep as 13 percent.

For now though, this Saturday’s Milan-San Remo looks like being one more battle between the sprinters.

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