Studying Sanremo 2002: Cipollini’s motorcade

With Milano-Sanremo only days away, we are taking a look back at some of the most memorable editions of “La Primavera.”

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?

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Going into 2002, Mario Cipollini was at his absolute peak of powers, both on and off the bike. Dubbed Il Re Leone, the self-styled Lion King was the top sprinter in the peloton and its most flamboyant. When he finally retired in 2005, he racked up nearly 200 wins, including a record of 42 stages at the Giro d’Italia. But as the 2002 season opened, Cipollini had a blot on his palmares: He had never won Milano-Sanremo.

What happened:
After having finished second twice, including the previous year to Erik Zabel, the pressure was on Cipollini and his Acqua e Sapone sprint train. The boys delivered Cipollini successfully to the line, reeling in an attacking Paolo Bettini over the Poggio, with Miguel Perdiguero, Massimiliano Gentili, and Giovanni Lombardi (now Peter Sagan’s agent) giving Cipollini the red carpet onto the Via Roma. Super Mario delivered for his lone monument win of his career, finishing a half bike-length ahead of American Fred Rodriguez.

What we learned from the race: A dedicated sprint train can control the action over the Cipressa and the Poggio, and deliver its man to the line. In the 1990s, Cipollini built the first modern-day sprint train, and other teams have copied the model. Taking a page from Cipollini, Mark Cavendish was unrivaled in the sprints, relying on his High Road train for a Sanremo win in 2009.

Could it play out this way again? Probably not. The level is so high in the peloton that it’s rare for anyone beside the top captains to get over the Poggio in the front group.