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When I was asked if I wanted to race Milano-Sanremo, I admit that I was woefully ignorant of the race’s history. I did not grow up dreaming of attacking on the Poggio, and “Via Roma” would elicit nothing more than a blank stare. I only knew that Milano-Sanremo is a monument. And very long. But I also knew that John [Degenkolb] could win and that we work well together, and I was not going to pass up that chance.
After Tirreno-Adriatico, I got to spend a few days riding around Sanremo on the bike path. It was there that I found the race museum-tunnel, featuring two kilometers (each way) of education. I emerged full of respect for the race and a bit intimidated by it, too. I then took to the internet to watch previous editions and do some reading, and I became enthralled with the race. For a race to so equally favor such a variety of riders is rare already, but add in the exceptional distance, and you have some really unpredictable racing. The more I learned about the race, the more excited I became.
It was obvious that the race is steeped in tradition, and this year’s edition featured the traditional finale, over the Cipressa and Poggio, finishing on the Via Roma. Apparently it is also tradition that the weather is fantastic on the days before the race and then terrible on race day … the Sunday curse.
We took advantage of the nice weather while it lasted and rode the final 50km of the route, where the real racing happens. It was on the climbs that I realized how easily the race could swing one direction or another; on their own, they are unimpressive climbs. Put them six hours into a race, however, and suddenly they take on a very different character.
All of the hype finally began to set in, and my nerves the morning of the race made me glad I hadn’t gone for that third cup of coffee. You would never know from John’s usual jovial disposition, though, that he was a race favorite who’d spent the whole winter training for this race.
The neutral rollout began as we wound our way out of town for 8km, across the web of railway lines that cover the roads. I also learned that another tradition of the race is to stop at the 0km sign to let the crashed riders catch back up.
Our race plan was simple: make sure that none of the other favorites’ teams got into the break, as we had no intention of pulling on the front. That accomplished, we settled in for the long ride to the coast. The name of the game was doing as little as possible for six hours while making sure that the protected riders did absolutely nothing. It’s a rolling babysitting competition. Need food? Need a bottle? Need a push while you pee? It may seem trivial, but even the energy spent coming back through the caravan after stopping for a break may be needed later.
The kilometers flew by, much to our surprise. We were so occupied with staying warm and fueled and out of trouble through all the rain-soaked cities that we suddenly found ourselves at the first feed zone. At that point, it was as though a switch had been flipped in the peloton. We had just been on a fast group ride, cruising happily along, but all at once, we were fighting for position going into the climb up Turchino — the descent was technical and nobody wanted to be caught behind a crash.
I was nearly to the bottom when we came upon a trio of nasty, slick switchbacks. I was behind my friend, former roommate, and the only other American in the race, Ben King (Cannondale-Garmin). When he ran out of traction and met the unforgiving pavement, I tightened up and joined him. Thankfully nothing more than a bruised hip suffered, and I was quickly on my way again. Ben decided to call it a day, cold and bruised, and climbed in the car.
After the descent, we were into the second half of the race, with just 140km of twisting and rolling coast road remaining. After 225km of racing, a point before which most other races have long-since finished, we instead reached the second feed zone. That’s when the length of the race really sets in!
After the feed zone, another switch was flipped in the peloton, as the three Capi were quickly approaching. My focus for the day was to get John over the top of the Capo Berta in the top-10, as the descent was tricky and followed soon after by the Cipressa. This job was made more difficult when I was taken down in a needless crash atop the first Capo. I fought my way back to the front a few kilometers before Capo Berta began and only had the legs remaining to keep the team at the front until the climb started. It was frustrating to wait all day for one moment and not be able to fully accomplish it, but that just highlights how significant conservation is in the race. My book of matches was a bit damp after six hours and 4500kJ in the cold rain, but I was at least able to put them in a good spot before joining the grupetto.
The descent off Capo Berta did indeed prove significant, but John and his support survived unscathed. From there, each guy has his job, and eventually only Tom Dumoulin remained on the Poggio. Once the finish was in sight, John’s killer instinct took over and he sealed the deal.
I leave the race with the lasting memories of ecstatic shouting in my earpiece as I climbed the Poggio and rolling across the finish of Milano-Sanremo, my first monument, goosebumps covered in road grime, sporting a few scrapes and bruises, and wearing a big smile. Not a bad day at the office, I’d say.