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Cycling reverts to its purest form at weather-plagued Milano-Sanremo

The 135 finishers at Sunday's Milano-Sanremo dealt with some of Mother Nature's worst blows. It was exactly what the sport needed

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MADRID (VN) — Cycling put its best face forward in horrid, brutal conditions in Sunday’s Milano-Sanremo.

After a winter of discontent, marred by scandal, innuendo, and bungling by the sport’s powers that be, cycling reconfirmed its reputation as a sport with guts and heart in an enthralling, emotional race in conditions that were anything but “primavera.”

While off-the-bike drama sometimes threatens to engulf the sport, Sunday’s raw, nail-biting clash of wheels and will over snowy, icy roads was just the tonic that will help cycling stay on track.

And it wasn’t the officials, the bureaucrats or the big-money interests who can claim credit. That goes to the 200 starters in Milan, who toed up to the line ready for whatever confronted them. When 135 survivors crossed the weather-shortened finish line some five-and-a-half hours later, all felt like they had survived something unique.

Third-place podium man Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Trek) summed it up best: “Everyone today is a hero.”

Rain turned to snow, yet the riders stubbornly pushed on, as they always do, as they’re paid to do, without complaint (well, there were a few grumbles — André Greipel said he felt like a “circus animal”).

Eventually, race organizers succumbed to the inevitable; conditions were simply too horrific and unsafe to continue. Passo del Turchino was converted into a luge run. Grateful, shivering riders piled into buses and drove down to the cold, wet Mediterranean coast, only to start all over again.

The day’s main breakaway saw their lead trimmed by three minutes — fair enough considering there would only be 130km left of racing — and Le Maniè was removed, in part to keep the race on track for TV schedules.

The battle recommenced, and the attrition started. Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) never got back on his bike. Orica-GreenEdge saw its back-to-back winners, Matt Goss and Simon Gerrans, both struggle.

Goss woke up Monday, posting a Twitter message, “Still defrosting, think I could have went faster the last 15km to the buses on cross-country skis. Coldest day ever!”

A hypothermic Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) succumbed to the wet and cold. The Shark’s teeth were chattering and his fingers blasted white as he told RAI: “I am disappointed because I do not like to abandon, but the cold was eating me from inside.”

Blanco’s Tom Jelte Slagter, who won in the heat of Tour Down Under in Australia two months ago, said hours after the race, “I still feel weird. I’ve never felt so bad on the bike.”

Perhaps it was sign of the times that the most intimate portrait of the raw emotions and suffering came via Twitter. When the race was neutralized and riders crawled off their bikes, revealing and brutally honest photos quickly beamed across the web.

Taylor Phinney’s (BMC Racing) Twitter post said it all. His helmet covered in ice, his eyes peered into the camera with weary desolation. Yet he would later catapult out of the chasing pack in the final kilometer after clearing the Poggio to finish seventh. The world responded: chapeau.

Eventual winner Gerard Ciolek posted perhaps the most telling image. Almost no one outside his team (and probably not many within) gave the journeyman German much chance of winning.

Ciolek snapped a photo of his jersey hanging to dry on the team bus and his tree-trunk legs rested against an armrest. Chilled to the bone, yes, but also chilled out. The German sprinter later raced with icy confidence, coolly marking the wheels of the favorites in the racing-winning six-man break to deliver the blockbuster victory for his South African team.

Milan-Sanremo is perhaps the most unpredictable, highly volatile of classics and the 104th edition certainly surpassed expectations of the season’s first monument.

The tension remains taut all the way to the line in a delicate, seesaw battle between attackers and sprinters, and opportunists and strength in numbers. The route is often criticized as too easy, too predictable, yet the Cipressa and Poggio continue to deliver gratifying surprises.

The short, punchy climbs are celebrated battlegrounds, and this year saw a “Classicissima” for the history books. Ian Stannard (Sky) and Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma) needed perhaps another 15 seconds over the Poggio to have a real chance, but both rode with a steely resolve that deserved more.

Cannondale’s Moreno Moser saved the day for five-star favorite and his teammate Peter Sagan, leading the chase up the Poggio. The Saganator correctly marked Cancellara, but underestimated Ciolek. Chalk it up as a missed opportunity, yet his day is sure to come.

Some 135 survivors arrived in Sanremo. Some complained conditions were too brutal. Others pressed on without blinking an eye. All were winners.

Milano-Sanremo’s spectacle was just the kind of epic drama that will win back fans; another validation of the eternal draw of bike racing in its purest, rawest form.

And it served as confirmation of what we’ve seen in every race so far this season — the racing is credible, highly competitive, highly unpredictable, and deliciously fun to watch.

The riders are doing their bit. The proof is in the pudding. Now it’s up to the so-called leaders of the sport to step up and be equally as heroic to take care of business in the back rooms, and get out of the way of what really counts.