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Longest of the classics, the Milano-Sanremo parcours makes for a lottery

At 298 kilometers, with a series of punchy climbs and a high-speed approach to the finish, "La Primavera" is the hardest monument to predict

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At 298 kilometers, Milano-Sanremo is the longest of the sport’s five monuments and, with a parcours that has seen incremental changes over its 103 editions, one of the most difficult to predict.

The first edition of “La Classicissima” ran over rutted dirt roads in April 1907 and went to Frenchman Lucien Petit-Breton. Since then, 50 Italians and 53 foreigners have taken wins in the season’s first major classic, which has played out over a changing parcours that has become increasingly more challenging. As 2008 winner Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) said this week, “it’s not the hardest race, but it’s the most difficult race to win.”

While riders sign in at the Castello Sforzesco and roll out over narrow, cobbled streets in the heart of Milan, the race truly begins 139km later, as the peloton approaches the narrow, dark tunnel at the top of the Passo del Turchino. It was here that 2009 winner Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) lost contact with the peloton in 2012. It was at the tunnel, as well, that Eugène Christophe fought through the snow to win the race’s fourth edition in 12 hours — one of only three finishers that year.

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From the tunnel, atop an 8km ascent that begins in earnest 134km into the race at Campo Ligure, the remaining 156km is an onslaught of short, punchy climbs, technical descents, and two roughly 20km flat intermissions where the bunch may regroup if conditions are right. Cavendish hoped that would be the case in 2012, but the then-world champion would abandon along the coast from behind the peloton before it reached the final climbs. A year earlier, Cavendish and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) were caught behind crashes on the descent from Le Mànie and lost their shots.

Organizers added the climb at Le Mànie in 2008 to split the race earlier and give the sprinters more of a challenge ahead of the Capi ramps and infamous Cipressa and Poggio di Sanremo climbs. It is between the Mànie and the Capo Mele, at 245km, that riders will get the first indication of what they may see in the finale. Riding along the Riviera di Ponente, the riders at the front of the race will get a feel for the prevailing wind direction and the teams motivated to keep the pace high. The Capo Mele, Capo Cervo, and Capo Verta are short, punchy ramps that will serve as leg-softeners but little more. From here, the racing is full-tilt.

The Cipressa, added in 1982 as a response to rider complaints over descending from the final climb with a 250-strong peloton, rises 234 meters over 5.7km, with an average gradient of 4.1 percent. From the right-hand turn off the Via Aurelia, with 28km to go in the race, the Cipressa rises consistently over a series of sweeping switchbacks. The inevitable attack out of the corner has riders on high alert coming into the base of the climb. Paolo Bettini struck out in 2004, dislodging Mario Cipollini for good, but was ultimately beaten, even after another effort on the Poggio.

It is at the base of the Cipressa that the cork finally becomes dislodged and the bubbly of “La Primavera” begins to pour. And pour it does. The climbs of the Cipressa and the Poggio to follow are big-ring, all-out affairs, with sharp corners and dicey descents, taxing riders after six hours in the saddle. The finale at Sanremo is as hectic as they come.

A sharp descent delivers riders back to the coast for the approach to the race’s iconic climb, the Poggio — the final climb and the most likely launchpad for any attack that will survive to the finish. The 2.7km ramp, added in 1960, rises 136 meters with an average gradient of just 3.7 percent and a maximum of eight percent. Taken on its own, the Poggio is not remarkable. But the danger of the Via Duca d’Aosta comes in its sinuous design — attacking riders get out of sight around stone walls and hairpins quickly — and its location, 288km into the race.

It is on the Poggio that Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) and Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) followed Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) to the podium in 2012, with Gerrans taking the win. But Moreno Argentin, in 1992, and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), in 2011, have been among the attackers to narrowly miss victory after a Poggio attack.

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The action almost always opens in the first two hairpins low down on the climb as the teams with numbers press the issue. In 2012, Nibali made use of a Valerio Agnoli attack to counter higher up on the climb. The gradient over the final kilometer eases, giving the bunch a chance to collect itself before the summit.

Just as dangerous as the Poggio’s ascent is its descent, marked at the top by a tight, left-hand switchback that has seen a number of riders brake-check or crash out of contention. While riders attacking on the climb can get away quickly in the high-speed corners leading to the final ramp to the summit, it is on the descent that a breakaway must make its real difference to stay away.

All-time wins leader Eddy Merckx made the Poggio descent his ace card over his seven victories. Cancellara led the breakaway down the descent a year ago as though he were carrying lead weights in his pockets, at one point catching the lead motorcycle in the switchbacks.

“I can do a lot, I have my cards to play,” Cancellara said of Sunday’s race. “I know Milano-Sanremo well. It’s the most particular race out of all the classics. It’s hard to predict. We can name the favorites, but that doesn’t mean they’ll win. It depends on the weather, the way the race goes, the Cipressa and the Poggio’s descent. … The number of teammates a rider has with him.”

From the bottom of the Poggio’s descent, 2.9km of slightly downhill, gently winding road leads to the finish on the Lungomare Italo Calvino. A high-speed chicane drops riders down to the finish straight inside the final kilometer. If there is headwind here and the breakaway has less than 10 seconds, it’s likely doomed. However, if the weather is favorable, the high speeds make it difficult for a chase to close on a strong group in time.

With riders like Gerrans, Matthew Goss (Orica), and Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida) logging surprise wins in the last decade, the finale in Sanremo is perhaps the most difficult of the five monuments to predict.

“Many things have to happen to win Sanremo,” world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) told VeloNews. “If there’s an attack on the Poggio, it depends on which riders are there and if there are others coming from behind. The weather and wind is also a factor. It’s like any classic. You have to be fast.”

The last point is obviously the most important. Regardless of what happens over the opening crescendo to the tunnel, or on Le Mànie, or over the switchbacks of the Cipressa and Poggio, or the finish straight, to win “la Primavera,” more than any of the other monuments, a rider must be fast.