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Commentary: Why MSR is fine just the way it is

Change is part of the natural evolution of cycling—but Milano-Sanremo is fine just the way it is.

The 2018 monument season opens Saturday just the way it should, with the unadulterated version of Milano-Sanremo.

Called the easiest monument to race, but the hardest to win, Milano-Sanremo just doesn’t get the love it deserves. The undulating run down the Italian Riviera consistently delivers the most unpredictable and chaotic finish of any one-day race on the calendar.

Yet every spring come the inevitable calls to change the course.

Some call it boring and say you only need to watch the final 10 minutes. Others keep insisting on tinkering with the Cipressa-Poggio finale. Some want to add La Pompeiana or bring back the La Maniè. Or both. Others even suggest finishing the race atop the Poggio. That’s heresy.

Don’t get me wrong. I dig all the course innovations and new energy that race organizers are pumping into their events. That’s especially true in grand tours, where the tendency toward shorter and more explosive stages has largely been positive.

There is a red line that cannot be crossed in the name of innovation. So long as alterations do not permanently distort the core and identity of a race, I applaud them. But if a race is changed so much that its essence is forever altered, I say leave it alone.

And that means don’t try to “fix” Milano-Sanremo. It’s fine just the way it is.

Modifying the routes of the monuments is nothing new, and change is part of the natural evolution of cycling. Every year, Paris-Roubaix looks a little bit different, with a new pavé sector here or a different straightaway section there. Yet the larger narrative of Paris-Roubaix remains the cobblestones.

Il Lombardia has also changed dramatically over the years, but its essence — racing over the steep hills of northern Italy — remains the same. Ronde van Vlaanderen came close to ruining a good thing when it shook up its course in 2012, but organizers were tinkering with the finale, not the spirit of the race, which endures with the cobbled bergs of Flanders.

Adding too many climbs to Sanremo, however, would forever change the DNA of the race. And that would be a bad thing.

The “Classicissima” is rightly called the sprinter’s classic. Of all the monuments, it’s one for the fast men of the peloton. And it’s the annual packed-into-30-minutes tug-of-war over the Cipressa and Poggio between the attackers and the pure sprinters that makes Sanremo so tantalizing.

Like any monument, the Sanremo course too has changed with the times. The Poggio was added in 1960 and the Cipressa in 1982. Those climbs, however, did not permanently alter the spirit of Sanremo. Like any good adjustment, they made the race more interesting and challenging, but didn’t ruin chances for the sprinters. The inclusion in 2008 of La Maniè, a short but steep climb, was already too close to making it too hard for the sprinters to make it to Sanremo firing at all cylinders.

The addition of Pompeiana, which nearly happened in 2014 if it weren’t for road damage on the steep climb after Cipressa and before the Poggio, would have turned Milano-Sanremo into an Italian version of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. That’s great for Vincenzo Nibali, but bad for anyone who loves Sanremo for what it is.

Sometimes leaving things the way they are is the wisest move. And that’s what race organizers RCS Sport finally embraced in 2014, when Pompeiana was permanently ditched (La Maniè had been taken out to keep the distance reasonable). Respecting the history of the race is now its mantra.

Bike racing, at its core, is about endurance and suffering. Milano-Sanremo is the longest one-day race on the international calendar, but fiddling with cycling’s link to its past should not be taken lightly. The monuments date back more than a century, but turning Sanremo into a version of Milan-Liège-Sanremo would cut that bond. Winners across all the monuments today can compare themselves to the champions of cycling’s illustrious history only as long as the course remains true to its roots.

The traditional parcours that the peloton races Saturday is what sets “La Primavera” apart. The downhill finale off the Poggio, with its daring-do attacks and desperate chases, makes it unlike any race in the world.

No other monument favors the pure sprinters, yet no other race has so many potential winners at the start line. Not only do the speed merchants stand a chance to win, but the audacious attackers and saboteurs stand real possibilities as well.

Granted, some will say the first five hours of racing in Sanremo is boring. Well, that might be true if you’re watching on TV (even the most routine race is never boring inside the race). Sanremo isn’t about the first five hours. It’s the final two hours of Sanremo that are divine cycling pleasure. Once the pack hits the Mediterranean, and starts tracing over the capi and finally dips inland to tackle the Cipressa and Poggio, the race compresses on itself and becomes more intense and desperate with every pedal stroke.

The race is like a bottle of fine champagne. It’s cooled to the perfect temperature, allowed to sit, and then shaken frenetically, and no one knows where the cork will fly.

The “Classicissima” is unique on the calendar. It’s the only major race that ends with a steep descent onto a flat, fast sprint. The outcome is usually spectacular and almost impossible to predict. Some things are fine just the way they are.