Studying Sanremo 2004: Zabel’s blunder brings Freire glory

Milano-Sanremo 2004 looked like it belonged to Petacchi, then Zabel was dashing to victory, but the German made a critical error.

With Milano-Sanremo only days away, we are taking a look back at some of the most memorable editions of “La Primavera,” the season’s first monument. The race has been won in a variety of ways, ranging from bunch sprints to bold solo attacks. What can we learn from the history of this long and unpredictable classic race?

Italian team Fassa Bortolo entered the 2004 version of La Primavera with a trump card in its deck: Alessandro Petacchi. Then 30 years old, Petacchi was the fastest man in the peloton in 2004, having won six stages of the Giro d’Italia, four stages of the Tour de France, and five stages of the Vuelta a España the previous year. Milano-Sanremo was always just a few kilometers too long for “Ale Jet,” and prior to 2004 his top finish had been 17h place. Fassa Bortolo hoped that a team motorcade could tow Petacchi to the finish line, similar to how Aqua & Sapone delivered Mario Cipollini the win two years prior. It didn’t work.

What happened: Fassa Bortolo took charge of the peloton on the descent of the Cipressa, and snuffed out multiple moves as the group climbed up and over the Poggio. The peloton rumbled down the Via Roma with Fassa firmly in control, and one-by-one, the guys in white and blue peeled off. The last man to swoop away was Italian-American Guido Trenti, and then Petacchi was allowed to flick on the afterburners and rocket to the finish.

But he didn’t!

Petacchi had zero oomph left in his legs, which you can see clearly in the clip. He stands out of the saddle to sprint and is immediately swarmed by Erik Zabel, and then he gives up his effort a short time later. And that’s when the 2004 Milano-Sanremo got ultra-weird. Zabel, already a four-time champion of the race, danced toward the line, presumably feeling pretty psyched that the sport’s newest fast guy was sputtering on his left. Look out Erik, don’t forget about your right side! Ack — too late! In one of the best cycling photos, Zabel posts up for the big W only to see out of the corner of his eyes that plucky Spaniard Oscar Friere nipped him with a last-ditch bike throw. Come, let us again marvel at this amazing (and embarrassing) moment, frozen in time.

Photo: Tim De Waele |

What did we learn from the race: Aside from the obvious lesson to always make sure the race is won before you celebrate, the 2004 edition reinforced a few important lessons about Milano-Sanremo. A strong team can control the peloton over the Cipressa and Poggio, but if its sprinter is a dud, what does it matter? Those entrepreneurial sprinters like Zabel and Friere can usually overcome team firepower on the long drag to the finish line. La Primavera’s parcours is often too long for the hefty pure sprinters that snack on shorter grand tour stages. When Petacchi won Milano-Sanremo the following year, he credited the victory to having dropped seven pounds in the offseason. “The 31-year-old’s preparation for the 96th running of La Primavera started last fall and centered on trimming down his physique. He stayed off the rich pastas and desserts to lose the weight,” read the VeloNews report from the 2005 race. OK, it was 2005, so yeah, “rich pasta ‘n stuff.”

Could it play out this way again? Oh yeah. So long as there is bike racing, riders will celebrate too early. Just ask Caleb Ewan.