Milan-San Remo is Saturday, March 19. In anticipation of the race, we’re looking back at some exciting moments we’ve seen throughout the years. In this article from the May 3, 2004, issue of VeloNews, Andrew Hood details how one rookie mistake cost Erik Zabel his spot on the top of the podium. VeloNews and Outside+ members can read every story we ever published in 50 years of VeloNews in our new VeloNews Archive.
Oscar Freire has the good looks of a movie idol and the fast-twitch flash of a stallion. Twice he has used his finish-line explosiveness to win the rainbow jersey of world champion, but in six seasons as a pro bike racer his road sprinter’s speed was never enough to earn the Spaniard a World Cup victory. But going into the 95th edition of Milan-San Remo on March 20, Rabobank’s Freire, 28, was ready to step into the winner’s circle.
Just as ready was Fassa Bortolo’s Alessandro Petacchi, the 29-year-old sprinter who came to Milan-San Remo fresh from three stage wins at Tirreno-Adriatico. Last year, at the end of an exhilarating season of wins, Petacchi looked like he would be taking his first classics bouquet at Paris-Tours, but the powerful Italian’s legs betrayed him in final approach to the line; the wily German Erik Zabel zipped by.
Zabel, four times a winner at San Remo, was again looking to thwart the lofty ambitions of Freire and Petacchi as a 60-strong lead pack thundered into the tunnel-like finishing straight of this season’s opening classic on March 20. All three had survived the rigors of the seven-hour, 294km classic and all three knew Milan-San Remo was within their grasp.
Fate and flawless team tactics by Fassa Bortolo seemed to ordain Petacchi as the winner, but just when it looked as if his victory were inevitable the Italian’s smooth-running engine suddenly stalled. The ever-steady Zabel, 33, who had won the battle for Petacchi’s wheel, roared past the Italian with a clear shot to the line. Sure that he was about to win La Primavera for the fifth time in eight years, the veteran T-Mobile rider sprung his fingers to the heavens.
It was a rookie mistake. Too late to correct his error, Zabel saw a blur of Rabobank orange to his right. Freire was throwing his bike at the line like a matador going in for the kill. The photo-finish tape showed that the Spaniard had taken the win by 17cm, about 6 inches.
“It’s better to have a lot of luck than great form,” Freire said later. “Many times in the past I’ve had good legs in this race but never any good fortune. Today I had both.”
I’ve waited a long time for a win like this.
Freire’s victory — the first by a Spanish rider since 1959 when Miguel Poblet took the second of two San Remo wins — came as sweet redemption for the two-time world champion. Often bothered by back problems, Freire suffered a close loss to Zabel in the 2000 Milan-San Remo, and though he has taken stage wins at both the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, he knew he had the measure of a major classic.
“I’ve waited a long time for a win like this,” Freire said after taking the World Cup leader’s jersey. “I lived in Italy during my years at Mapei and I learned the importance and mystique of this race among the Italians.”
Just days before the race, defending champion Paolo Bettini (Quick Step-Davitamon) named Freire as his most dangerous rival. The pair sparred the previous week at Tirreno-Adriatico, where Bettini edged Freire by just five seconds to claim the overall win. In one of the stages, Freire lost to Bettini by centimeters.
“At Milan-San Remo, circumstances have to play in your favor,” Freire later surmised. “I knew that I had the form this year, my best in quite a few years so early in the season. I saw the winds were neutralizing attacks on the Cipressa and the Poggio. I gambled it would come down to a sprint.”
To wait for the sprint or to attack on one of the famed bluffs on the road to San Remo is always the key tactical question for the season’s World Cup opener. The Cipressa — 5. 7km at 4.1 percent grade — tops out 21.6km from the finish, while the Poggio — 3.3km at 3.8 percent — comes just 5.7km from the finish. Neither climb is very steep, but they’re difficult because the riders hit them after nearly 290km of racing, while strong winds blowing off the Med invariably make the going even tougher. Last year, Bettini was the first man to get away from the bunch over the Poggio since Laurent Jalabert pulled it off in 1995.
Since Zabel’s first victory in 1997, Milan-San Remo had come down to a mass gallop every year except 1999, when Andreï Tchmil attacked with 600 meters to go and won. Bettini, whose attack last year came on the steepest, 7-percent section of the Poggio, vowed to do the same this year.
For a race that produced such a shocking finish, most of the previous seven-plus hours followed a familiar pattern until that final high-octane charge to the line. There was the typical mid-race breakaway as Landbouwkrediet-Colnago’s 39-year-old Belgian Ludo Dierckxsens led a five-man charge over the Passo di Turchino, only to be gobbled up by the bunch at the base of the decisive Cipressa climb.
Then there were the attacks by the favorites Bettini and Erik Dekker of Rabobank on the mythic Poggio climb that were checked by a sprint-hungry pack and swirling head winds.
There were also the costly crashes in the nervous bunch, with Frenchman Carlos Da Cruz of FDJeux.com ending up in the hospital with two cracked vertebrae, while Italian favorites Michele Bartoli (CSC) and Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) both lost their chances of winning.
There was no lack of expectations for an epic showdown when the near-200-strong field slowly filed out of Milan that Saturday morning and pushed south across the Lombardy plain. But the hyped battle between Petacchi and 2002 winner Mario Cipollini lost some of its fizzle over the preceding days. The Lion King was stricken with a minor flu after he was twice trounced by Petacchi at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Giro di Lucca.
“It’s okay if I get dropped on the climbs at Tirreno,” Cipollini said. “But I would rather suffer a heart attack than get dropped on the Cipressa. Milan-San Remo to me is a mythic race. It’s part of my life as a racer.”
Fog and cool temperatures provided a somber prequel to the fireworks that were sure to fly once the course hit the Liguria coast along Italy’s Riviera. After 60km, Dierckxsens, Frenchman Nicolas Portal of ag2r, Italian Giulio Tomi of Vini Caldirola, and Spaniards Toni Tauler (Balears-Banesto) and Carlos Barredo (Liberty Seguros) went on the attack and the bunch was content to let them have some early TV time.
To win Milan-San Remo is like living a dream ... Everything must go exactly right to win at San Remo.
Their advantage was more than 16 minutes before the main pack started to come back to life. By the top of the day’s main obstacle — the cold and foggy Passo di Turchino at 143km — the gap was down to 10:30.
The quintet’s lead was getting smaller the closer they drove southwest along the stunning Italian Riviera toward San Remo. With 44km to go, the margin was three minutes as they plowed over the first of the capi or large headlands that jut into the Mediterranean. Dierckxsens tried his luck alone but he was swallowed by the bunch as it hit the Cipressa.
The pace hit nearly 60 kph as the favorites surged to the front, anxious not to lose position over the critical climb. Riders from CSC, Saeco, Rabobank, and Quick Step-Davitamon were bumping shoulders as Bettini shot out of the bunch to lead the way up the first ramp.
Quick on Bettini’s wheel were Yaroslav Popovych of Landbouwkrediet-Colnago, world champion Igor Astarloa of Cofidis and George Hincapie of U.S. Postal-Berry Floor. Dekker, Rabobank’s Dutchman who broke his hip in a crash at the 2002 Milan-San Remo, opened the first serious gap of 11 seconds, but he was marked by T-Mobile’s Steffen Wesemann who was riding in Zabel’s defense.
The real story though was happening in the back of the strung-out group, where the proud Cipollini was watching his chances of a second victory melting under the fast pace. Cipo’s Domina Vacanze team surrounded him to protect his flanks, but the 2002 world champion quickly realized it wasn’t going to be his day to hunt for victory.
“I simply didn’t have the physical condition to do well,” Cipollini admitted after finishing 109th, 5:40 back. “To win Milan-San Remo is like living a dream. I am not too upset about the result considering I was sick. Everything must go exactly right to win at San Remo. This simply gives me more motivation to race here again.”
You always have to be at the Cipressa if you want to win the race.
Team CSC was intent on making itself the protagonists of the race. Under Bjarne Riis’s unique leadership, the team has risen to be one of the most powerful in the peloton, including a steam-rolling start to the 2004 campaign with dominant wins at the Mediterranean Tour and Paris-Nice.
In 2003, Riis paid handsomely for Andrea Tafi, but the Italian couldn’t deliver a big win at the spring classics. At season’s end, Riis found Bartoli under-appreciated at Fassa Bortolo and brought him and Tour protégé Ivan Basso into the CSC fold.
Also looking good at CSC is a rejuvenated Bobby Julich, who led the chase over the Cipressa, with some help from Saeco’s Alessandro Spezialetti, to squelch Dekker’s attack before the summit. Last year’s runner-up Mirko Celestino of Saeco made an attack on the twisting descent and immediately put a charge into the leaders, just as they were catching their breath after the Cipressa summit.
Bartoli was chasing hard when he swept wide through a steep right turn and clipped his front tire into a guardrail protecting a 40-foot drop. He fell hard on his right hip while Rebellin and Leon Van Bon of Lotto-Domo also toppled.
While Bartoli scrambled back on his bike, he couldn’t catch back at this decisive moment in the race. “You always have to be at the Cipressa if you want to win the race,” said Bartoli, who crossed the line more than five minutes back before angrily storming into the Team CSC bus. “I was definitely on top of the race on the Cipressa. I had good legs today.”
Bettini would long for Bartoli on the Poggio, when he suddenly found himself with too few allies to lead the charge. “It was too bad he crashed because it would have been beautiful to have Bettini and Bartoli attacking on the Poggio,” said Bettini. “I’m sure Bartoli would have attacked. I could see he was one of the strongest today and he was animated to race.”
Celestina’s move was reeled in on the flats next to the ocean where Fassa Bortolo was displaying excellent tactics to do the quiet work of snuffing out any more moves. Petacchi’s “Silver Train” then had seven of its jerseys massing at the front as the peloton roared past the huge throng of fans on the opening ramps of the Poggio.
Just as in the women’s race held earlier over the same roads, a strong inland breeze was hitting the peloton hard on the open approaches of the Poggio. Matteo Carrara of Lampre made the first acceleration, prompting Dekker to pounce along with Oscar Pereiro of Phonak.
Sensing that time was running out, Bettini unleashed a vicious acceleration out of the lead peloton still numbering about 60 riders. He shot past the Dekker trio, while Angel Vicioso of Liberty Seguros followed “The Cricket” over the top of the Poggio. But there would be no miracles this year.
Fassa Bortolo’s Fabio Sacchi drove hard to reel in Bettini on the descent. Later, Bettini said he was livid that he received no collaboration from others who seemed content to let Fassa Bortolo drive it home for a sprint.
“I’m not upset about what happened today because I’ve already won one San Remo,” said Bettini, who settled for eighth. “I’m the kind of rider who would rather risk everything for an attack and lose rather than wait for others. I’m disappointed at riders like Danilo Di Luca and Giuliano Figueras who didn’t follow my lead. I tried on the Poggio, but the headwind made it impossible.”
It’s frustrating to make such a stupid mistake, it’s something that only happens once in your career.
There have been growing whispers since Petacchi’s loss to Zabel in October’s Paris-Tours that the breakout star simply doesn’t have the legs to win a sprint at the end of a race as long and as fast as Milan-San Remo. At 294km, Milan-San Remo is the longest of the World Cup races and it takes an extra turbo to have the kick at the end of such distances.
Petacchi’s impressive run last year, which included four stage victories or more at all three of the grand tours, earned him the title as cycling’s fastest man. But just as some predicted, his legs failed him after Italian-American Guido Trenti pulled off with 250 meters to go. Petacchi couldn’t accelerate off the launch, and opened the door for Freire, Zabel, and Cofidis’s Stuart O’Grady to come through to take the podium spots. Petacchi couldn’t hide his disappointment with fourth place.
“My team did fabulous work for me today, but I lost today in the same manner I lost Paris-Tours last year,” Petacchi told Italian television. “I paid for the speeds over the Poggio and the Cipressa. When we hit the Via Roma, my legs were hurting. I felt blocked when I tried to accelerate. I could only watch as Zabel and Freire came through. I am disappointed, but now I know one day I can win this race.”
In fact, Zabel played the same card that led him to the Paris-Tours victory against Petacchi last fall. Just as it used to be a battle to grab Cipollini’s wheel, now riders are desperate to get on Petacchi’s as the race comes in for the sprint.
“I decided to mark Petacchi but I forgot about Freire,” said Zabel, who was still smiling despite having egg on his face. “The big surprise was Petacchi’s failure to win. Some say I’m washed up, but I’m still somewhat pleased despite my error I got around Petacchi.” In fact, it was only Zabel’s premature celebration that doused his enthusiasm. “It’s frustrating to make such a stupid mistake, it’s something that only happens once in your career,” said Zabel. “I was sure l had won after passing Petacchi, who was so strong at Tirreno-Adriatico. In my career, I’ve always sprinted to the line. I never saw Freire.”
It’s fast into the finish.
For Freire, Zabel’s mistake was all his gain. The Spanish rider stabbed his bike across the line and scored the biggest win since his pair of world titles.
“I wanted to be on Petacchi’s wheel, but Zabel wanted it, too,” Freire said. “I let him go first, because if we had fought too hard we would have blocked each other and then neither of us would have won. Petacchi had six teammates who did the perfect setup. He just didn’t have the legs.”
Freire enjoyed a quiet dinner with his wife and some close friends Saturday night following his Milan-San Remo victory, but that’s all he allowed himself. “I can’t relax now,” he said. “The victory at San Remo has put me into the World Cup lead. It’s a big boost for my motivation and I won’t allow myself to be behind looking for points like in the past years. We’ve just started, there are still nine classics left.”
Freire admitted he’s already learned his lesson about celebrating too soon. He made the same mistake in the fifth and final stage of the Ruta del Sol in February. The rider who beat him in that sprint? Erik Zabel.
Everyone knew that Zulfia Zabirova was going to attack on the Cipressa in the Primavera Rosa. But just as last year, no one was strong enough to do anything about it, and the svelte Russian racer took a second consecutive victory in the women’s 118km version of Milan-San Remo.
The 1996 Olympic time trial champion’s strategy was again flawless. “It worked last year so I knew it could be a good tactic again to try,” said Zabirova, who soloed into San Remo a half-minute ahead of Dutch star Mirjam Melchers. “My team rode so good today. I attacked a little later than I did last year, but the rest was the same. It’s fast into the finish.”
The women’s World Cup race starts in Varazze and follows the final part of the men’s Milan-San Remo course, taking in the Cipressa and Poggio climbs. A brisk tailwind pushed the group along until the sparks started to fly on the Cipressa. Zabirova’s Let’s Go Finland team first sent Italian climber Fabiana Luperini up the road. Then, just as the bunch reeled her in, Zabirova counterattacked and opened up a 20-second gap by the summit.
Zabirova used her time-trial skills to drive over the Poggio and easily held off a strong chase from Melchers, who jumped on the last climb.
Best of the U.S. Team T-Mobile was Amber Neben, who was 25th. Neben made a solo move on the Poggio, but she said the wind stalled her effort. “When I attacked on the Poggio, it was a super strong headwind and neutralized everything. I was trying to go. Everyone else just sat on,” Neben said.
Maybe next year Neben and the rest will keep a closer eye on Zabirova on the Cipressa.